A ten-year woodland restoration trajectory

Leighton Reid describes a long-term ecological research project at Shaw Nature Reserve (Franklin County, Missouri, USA). To learn more, read the new research paper (email the author for a pdf copy – jlreid@vt.edu) or tune in for a webinar from the Natural Areas Association on April 21 (register here).

In 2000, the Dana Brown Woods were dark and dense. Brown oak leaves and juniper needles covered the sparsely vegetated ground, and invasive honeysuckle was creeping in around the edges. Biologically, the woodland was getting dormant.

In contrast, the woods today are lit by sunlight everywhere except the lowest-lying streambanks, and the ground is hardly visible beneath a green layer of diverse, ground-level foliage. These changes were most likely caused by two actions: burning the woods, and cutting out invasive trees and shrubs.

Many practitioners have seen woodlands recover to some extent when they are burned, but few have documented the recovery as thoroughly and over so long a period of time as Nels Holmberg and James Trager.


Nels Holmberg (left) discussing the finer points of Rubus identification with Quinn Long in the Dana Brown Woods.

Nels is an ecologist and sheep farmer in Washington, Missouri. He has inventoried the plants at several state parks and natural areas. In 2000, Nels teamed up with Shaw Nature Reserve’s resident natural historian, James Trager, and together they designed a study to describe how ecological restoration was changing the woodland flora at the reserve. They picked the Dana Brown Woods as their study area.

In a nutshell, Nels and James chose 30 random points on a map. They divided the points evenly across three ecological communities. They placed 10 points in mesic woodlands – the gently sloping parts of the property where white oak and shagbark hickory were most prevalent. Ten points were in areas dominated by eastern red cedar – mostly thin-soiled ridgetops that faced the south, and ten points were in forest – the lower, thicker-soiled toe slopes where northern red oak and Shumard oak were dominant in the canopy with paw paws and spicebush down below.


Three ecological communities in the Dana Brown Woods: (A) red cedar dominated areas which, after removing red cedar, looked more like dolomite glades in some parts; (B) mesic woodlands with lots of oak and hickory in the canopy; and (C) forest – which had a much darker understory.

At each point, Nels hammered in a t-post, then walked 50 m in the steepest direction and hammered in another t-post. This was his transect. Every year for more than a decade (2000-2012), Nels walked the transects and recorded every stem of every species that was inside of 10 0.5-m2 study plots. Actually, he did this twice per year – once in the spring to capture the ephemeral plants, and once in early summer. Over the course of the study he spent more than 200 days in the field.

Canopy Cover

Dana Brown Woods before (left) and after (right) red cedar removal, with Nels’s 30 transects. The horizontal axis of the image is about 0.9 km. Imagery is from Google Earth.

During this time the stewards at Shaw Nature Reserve were busy restoring the woods. From 2001-2012, they burned the woods five times. This amounted to about one fire every three years. In 2005-2006, they brought in a logging crew to remove all of the eastern red cedars.


James Trager lights a fire in a woodland at Shaw Nature Reserve.


One of several thousand red cedar stumps from trees that were harvested from the Dana Brown Woods in 2005-2006.

Plot R8

One of Nels’s sampling quadrats in the Dana Brown Woods. Photo: Nels Holmberg.

I met Nels and James in 2014. I had just joined Missouri Botanical Garden’s Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development as a postdoc, and I was looking for a local research project. I heard that Nels Holmberg had a giant dataset about woodland restoration, so I called him and asked if I could look at it. Nels said “Sure!”. I imagined he would send me an Excel file. Instead he brought in a giant cardboard box full of yellow legal pads where he had recorded his data.


One of hundreds of datasheets where Nels recorded his detailed observations.

It took a long time to digitize all of the data. There were more than 50,000 data points. But once we had it all together, this is what we learned:

After eleven years of restoration, the number of native plant species in Dana Brown Woods increased by 35%, from 155 species in 2001 to 210 species in 2012. This increase was linear. That is, the number of native species was still increasing at the end of the study. If we repeated the study today, we expect the number of native species would be even greater than in 2012.

The number of native species increased at different speeds and to different degrees in different ecological communities. In the lower and wetter forest areas, the numbers didn’t really shift very much. They jumped around but not in one direction. In the woodland areas, the number of native species increased by about 23% in the first three years and then leveled out. But in the higher and drier areas where red cedars had been dominant, the number of plants increased linearly by 36%.

Native Species Richness

Changes in the number of native plant species recorded over time in the Dana Brown Woods. On the left are overall changes for the whole management unit. On the right are changes for different ecological communities within the management unit. The management interventions are shown in gray.

The plant species that benefited from the restoration were mostly forbs and grasses. A couple of the biggest “winners” were black snakeroot (Sanicula odorata) and nodding fescue (Festuca subverticillata). There were also some “losers”: Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quenquefolia) and spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) both declined over time. Relatively few of the species that became more common were “conservative” – i.e., dependent on intact habitat. Mostly they were more widespread and tolerant species.


Co-author Olivia Hajek demonstrates a hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) – a good representative of the type of species that benefited most from the restoration. Hog peanut is an herbaceous legume that is common in many woodlands, including disturbed ones.

Our study did not include a control treatment, but counterfactuals exist at Shaw Nature Reserve (although they are becoming fewer and fewer with the excellent stewardship of Mike Saxton and many others). There are still thick patches of eastern red cedar covering remnant glades on parts of the property. Woodlands that have not been regularly burned are now filled with bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii), wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei), and other invaders. And low-lying forest that has not been restored is very dark with fire-intolerant sugar maple (Acer saccharum) casting much of the shade. If we had included a control treatment in our experiment, these are probably the trends we would have found – definitely not a spontaneous resurgence of diverse native plants.


Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) was present at the outset of restoration and remained relatively stable.

Why does this work matter? The biggest value of this study is that it shows a relatively long-term restoration trajectory, and it does so in fine botanical detail. Many managers and scientists already have data to show that fire and tree thinning increase woodland plant diversity. This study adds another dimension. It shows how quickly plant diversity recovered. It also shows how the speed and shape of the recovery varied across the landscape. We hope that other scientists and practitioners will compare the recovery trajectories in the Dana Brown Woods to their own natural areas. To facilitate that, we have made all of the underlying data freely available online.


Buffalo clover (Trifolium reflexum) is a conservative species that is present in Dana Brown Woods but was not detected in any of the survey plots.

One of the next steps for this research is to figure out how and when to re-introduce some more conservative plants. Although the Dana Brown Woods became much more diverse as it was being restored, most of the plants were early successional or generalist species. We found very few habitat specialists that cannot tolerate disturbance, which suggested to us that some of these species may have been lost from the site at some time in the past. To learn how conservative plants might be re-introduced, we have started a new experiment testing the effects of soil microbes, competition, and time since the start of restoration on the success of introduced seedlings from seven conservative plant species. In the next year or two, we hope to have new information and recommendations for restorationists looking to add more specialized biodiversity to their woodlands.


Freemont’s leather flower (Clematis fremontii) is a restricted species occurring on dolomite glades in southeastern Missouri. Although it is present at Shaw Nature Reserve less than one kilometer from Dana Brown Woods, it has not colonized the restored glade habitats there. This photo is from Valley View Glade near Hillsboro, Missouri.

To learn more about this research, you can read the original research paper in Natural Areas Journal. Email me for a pdf copy (jlreid@vt.edu). You can also tune in on April 21 for a webinar on this work. Register here.