Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
Oct. 18, 1996

Lack of trees doesn't deter forester

by Steve Jones
He's a forester who grew up in Milwaukee on a lot with only two trees. You might think Dick Schultz would have headed for a heavily wooded state.

But the Iowa State professor of forestry chose Ames not once, but twice. Schultz came to ISU as a student in the 1960s. He returned to join the faculty in 1979 after a year as head environmental coordinator for the Iowa Department of Transportation and eight years on the University of Georgia faculty.

Georgia is carpeted by pines and other tree species. However, Iowa's lack of large forests actually provides an advantage for ISU forestry students.

"Foresters from Iowa State receive a more diverse education than students in the more forested states," Schultz said. "Our students have a much better understanding of how forests function in a landscape with other plant communities like prairies, wetlands and farms."

Because Iowa is heavily farmed, foresters have to integrate trees into the agricultural landscape, "to put them where they can do the most good," Schultz explained. "Iowa doesn't have large masses of trees, so we're looking to identify critical areas, like steep slopes or stream edges, where trees can provide the most ecological benefits."

Schultz leads the Agroecology Issue Team of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. The team is conducting research on streamside management systems along more than a mile of Bear Creek in Story County. The researchers have developed a model system consisting of a buffer strip of trees, shrubs and prairie grasses; small constructed wetlands; and rotational grazing schemes.

Schultz wants a system farmers can adopt that has the ability to improve water quality, increase wildlife diversity and slow floodwater. So far, he said, results have been encouraging.

The trees and other plants trap surface runoff from cropfields, reduce pollutants in soil water and stabilize stream banks. The wetlands act as natural filters for water flowing from drainage tiles beneath farm fields. Nitrogen (from fertilizers) and pesticides break down as they go through the wetlands, resulting in cleaner water entering the stream.

The plants also provide excellent wildlife habitat. On one of last winter's coldest days, about 100 pheasants were seen along a 1,000-foot section of Bear Creek. "There was no other place they could go to find cover," Schultz said.

The model system has been tested twice by floodwaters. In 1993 and again last summer when an even higher and faster flood hit this area north of Roland, the buffer system did its job. Schultz said he saw where running water had cut through bare soil on the farm fields until it hit the grass waterways and the buffer strip. The buffer strip slowed the water, preventing further erosion. Re-establish enough streamside buffer strips and wetlands (which can hold back flood water), and the damaging effects of floods would be lessened, he added.

The Bear Creek watershed research, which began in 1990, is one of the most developed buffer strip systems in an agricultural area in the United States, Schultz said. Similar research in other parts of the country use existing streamside ecosystems. Work at Bear Creek focuses on re- establishing a multi-species system along streams where crops have been grown right down to the edge or along which livestock have been grazed.

Leopold Center director Dennis Keeney said the Bear Creek project probably is the nation's most "science-based" buffer strip research effort. Documented, research-based results, Keeney said, will ease the job of getting landowners to accept the idea and build their own buffer strips.

"The ultimate goal is to develop predictive models that can be applied to many watersheds," Schultz said. "We don't want to force anything on landowners. Rather, we want to make the buffer strip flexible enough so that people will want to use them and can choose the type of system that fits their needs."

For example, Schultz explained, instead of planting trees and shrubs, a farmer may want only native grasses. Another landowner may want the narrowest buffer strip that's still effective, while another may want a wide one to attract wildlife.

A similar project has been established by the Agroecology Issue Team at Storm Lake in Buena Vista County.

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