Did you know that the Riverfront Trail is actually part of the Missouri River Bottomland Forest? One of the reasons we moved to Washington was the Trail: I love walking there, listening to the birds, smelling the sweet, fresh air, and looking at the bunnies hopping around. The trail is special for me, but I was unaware that it has much bigger significance. Thanks to Mike Smith, our guest blogger, I can share the importance of the The Missouri River Bottomland Forest with all of you. Appreciate what you’ve got, it is usually a lot more that you think …
The Missouri River Bottomland Forest we see today is significantly different from what existed before the dike system was built in the 1930’s. This environment has been altered so dramatically, it is difficult to even compare it to its historical predecessor.
Before the dike system, the Missouri was a series of braided channels. The land adjoining the channels was is in a constant state of change as the result of floods. The plant communities along the river were adapted to this dynamic condition. For example, unlike upland Oak Hickory forests, Cottonwood forests do not regenerate in the forest under story. They are dependent on older forest areas being blown out in floods, and new land deposited in the form of mud flats and sand bars for their regeneration.
Today, this dynamic riverfront is largely stabilized by the dike system. The Cottonwoods and their associated species are fast growing and short-lived. Most of those we see along the river today are as old as the land that was deposited after the dike system went in. This means that they are reaching the end of their life expectancy. The question is, what will happen to this forest as the Cottonwoods die off? More than likely, the species composition will change, reflecting a plant community usually associated with land more elevated from the river. The tree species associated with this higher elevation include Bur Oak, Pecan, Shellbark Hickory, Swamp White Oak, Shumard Oak, Paw Paw, etc. Some of these tree species are already showing up on their own in the understory along the Washington riverfront.
Another significant change associated with the Missouri river bottomland forest is the spread of invasive plant species. Some of these invasive species, such as Bush Honeysuckle and Garlic Mustard are so aggressive that they outcompete native plants and trees. The health of an environment is measured by diversity. Invasive species can greatly reduce or eliminate diversity.
Ultimately, the future of the Missouri river bottomland forest is unknown. The only thing we know for sure is that it will be dramatically different from what it was in the past. Either way, Washington is immensely fortunate to have several miles of bottomland forest within our city limits, and the Riverfront Trail trail by which we can access and enjoy it.
Story by Mike Smith, Washington resident and guest blogger.
Photos: Slava Bowman Photography