Significance of a tree falling in a prairie

By Eric Chien

No tree is sacred. These were the instructions national game refuge staff gave my crew during a ten-day work stint in eastern North Dakota. Staring up into the branches of an enormous cottonwood, that claim reverberated dubiously between my ears. After carrying my chainsaw and a backpack full of fuel and oil a half-mile under the hot Dakota sun, the shade of the cottonwood grove engulfed me like a cool towel. Underneath the canopy of these enormous trees, the air was noticeably milder and the sound of shaking leaves whispered relief over my aching back. It was a primal feeling of refuge, and one likely felt by generations of prairie travelers, humans or otherwise. Deer trails and bedding areas testified to a broad appreciation of those cottonwoods. After resting in the shade for a moment, and admiring the branching crowns and wide girths of the dozen or so trees around me, I fired up my saw and laid each of the giants on the ground.  

It can be hard to know what the right thing to do is with respect to resource management. In a world of dwindling natural areas, managers are forced to weigh the values of incompatible resources vying for smaller and smaller parcels of land. A fishless lake is a boon for threatened frogs, but with fish stocks increasingly pressured and valued by the public, can such a lake be left for the frogs alone? These are the types of questions our project partners wrestle with on the lands they are charged with caring for. On Tewaukon National Wildlife Refuge, managers have had to decide between trees and vanishing prairie communities. Having stood among groves of cottonwoods, and also looked out on the wild beauty of the unbroken prairie sky, it is a balance I do not envy having to strike.

When felling a large tree, it is prudent to bring a sharp chain, plenty of tree felling wedges and a healthy respect. Big trees do no relinquish their resistance to gravity quietly. It only takes a couple of minutes to put the requisite cuts into a tree; properly placed and dimensioned they will usher the tree in the chosen direction of the sawyer. When the final cut reaches the threshold where the stubborn fibers of the tree finally give way to the massive weight of the tree loosened from its underground mooring, it is a usually quiet moment. The top of the tree begins to lean silently toward the ground, but the quiet does not persist. Like a train picking up speed, the trunk begins to follow the crown to the ground, the leaves whistling and rushing as they fly through the soon-to-be-opened sky. The ground shudders. The force of the impact can be felt through steel toe boots; it as if the land wants you to know that something of significance has just occurred.

It was a strange feeling to stand in the open sun. The wind rushed unimpeded across the prairie ground, where once it smashed into stalwart trunks. It would be unfeeling not to call the felling of these giants a loss, but next year, somewhere on that very ground, perhaps a grasshopper sparrow will build her nest, free from the fear of hawks peering down from tall branches.