The ancient stand of trees, some more than 300 years old, were once part of a natural barrier that helped define the boundaries of American Indian tribes.
"We spent the morning in one of the most beautiful stretches of forest that I have ever seen. There were magnificent, sparsely scattered trees and 20 varieties of climbing plants, some bright green and others delicately shaped and turned red by frost . ... Nearby flowed the wide, majestic, red Arkansas (River), with its steep, wooded, rocky bank on our side and its wide sandy beach, caused by the spring floods, on the other side."
-- Count De Portales, 1832.
"I shall not easily forget the mortal toil and vexations of the flesh and spirit that we underwent occasionally in our wanderings through the Cross Timber. It was like struggling through forests of cast iron."
-- Washington Irving's recollection from the same1832 prairie expedition.
By Mike Shields
Tallgrass prairie, of course, has a bigger reputation. But implausible as it might seem, Kansas also has some ancient, old-growth forest.
It is a remnant of an ecosystem that once stretched from southeast Kansas into central Texas. Called the Ancient Cross Timbers, what survives of it is being mapped and studied by a team of University of Arkansas researchers.
"There are stands of ancient cross timbers in Kansas," said David Stahle, leader of the Arkansas research team. "It was never as extensive in Kansas as Oklahoma. It is still the largest single ecosystem in the entire state of Oklahoma and does extend into Texas. We've been to a number of locations in southeastern Kansas where we find trees 250 to 300 years old."
In pre-settlement days the Cross Timbers are believed to have covered some 30,562 square miles in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. In some places, according to historical accounts, it was so dense that it served as a territorial boundary between rival Indian tribes.
Dominant tree species in the Cross Timbers are post and blackjack oaks, formerly considered too short and slow growing to have commercial value. For years that helped spare thousands of acres of the Timbers in the northeastern hill country of Oklahoma, where the largest intact stands have been found. But now even scrub oak on rough ground is considered worth harvesting.
"The problem now is the chip-mill industry is moving into eastern Oklahoma," Stahle said. "Although the trees are no good for logs, they can be ripped into one-inch blocks for shipping to Japan to make fine magazine paper so we can read Sierra Club articles about destruction of the fine forests."
The goal of the Ancient Cross Timbers Project, Stahle said, is to map what is left of the forest and try to educate landowners, public and private, about ways it best can be preserved.
Most of the timbers are on private property, Stahle said. But there are Kansas stands on public land, most notably around southeast Kansas lakes.
"The Corps of Engineers owns a lot of it around Toronto Lake and Elk City Reservoir," Stahle said.
Stahle also has done tree-ring measurements in timbers on private property around the small towns of Coyville and Fall River.
"They weren't necessarily large stands or entirely pristine and free of human disturbance, but there were actually some very old trees. Along the tributaries of the Fall River there are some very interesting sandstone formations and all along the Verdigris on the bluffs above its tributaries there are sandstone outcrops. There you still find Cross Timbers."
Even before the wood-chip industry discovered the Cross Timbers it was being clear cut, first by farmers who cleared the trees from level ground for crops or pasture and then by suburban development.
"The original, old-growth Cross Timbers has been unmercifully destroyed throughout its natural range," Stahle said. "Wherever it was found on level ground, the trees were removed to grow crops, usually cotton in Oklahoma and Texas. On hilly ground there wasn't much motivation to clear it because you can't farm hilly ground. That's where you see it surviving, mostly on the rough ground and hilly outcrops."
Stahle said the Cross Timbers Project researchers, in their efforts to plot the current extent of the forest, are building upon the classic biological mapping of A.W. Kuchler. A retired Kansas University professor, Kuchler, 91, resides at Brandon Woods retirement facility. Because of his failing health, he could not be interviewed for this article.
"Kuchler is one of the great bio-geographers of all time," Stahle said. "I never met the guy. But he developed a map of the U.S. called the Potential Natural Vegetation of the Coterminous United States that is a very famous map."
Kuchler's work, published in 1964 by the American Geographical Society, depicts the pre-settlement ecosystems of the continental U.S., describing the types of vegetation that existed before the importation of exotic species and the onslaught of development.
"Based on soil descriptions, early travelers' descriptions and other data, he identified 106 different ecosystems," one of which was the Cross Timbers, Stahle said. "Kuchler shows two big fingers of Cross Timbers extending into southeast Kansas, straddling the Verdigris River, extending out of the Osage Hills of Oklahoma."
Kuchler's map helped the Arkansas researchers early on find surviving stands of Kansas Cross Timbers.
Thanks to a grant this year from Oklahoma's McGee Foundation, the Arkansas research group will have use of more sophisticated tools for finding surviving ancient growth.
The grant is specifically for using satellite remote sensing and field exploration to locate the largest stands of Cross Timbers still left.
Early project data suggest there are 500 square miles of ancient timber surviving in Oklahoma alone, which means there are thousands of oak trees older than the American Revolution and red cedars that predate the voyage of Columbus.
"There is no doubt that the (surviving) Cross Timbers is one of the least disturbed forest types left in the eastern U.S.," Stahle said.
Knowledge of the existence of ancient, old-growth woodlands in Kansas is so sparse that even park rangers at the southeastern Kansas lakes may be unaware, Stahle said.
"I know some of those guys know, because I've talked to them," Stahle said. "But it just depends on the ranger. Anyplace you find upland forest in (southeast) Kansas, it's probably Cross Timbers, because it was the only kind of forest you had."
That doesn't go, however, for parts of southeast Kansas where the dominant trees are red cedars and Osage orange. Neither of those trees were widespread in Kansas before destruction of the Cross Timbers began here.
"Those are weeds," Stahle said. "The native range of the Osage orange is central Oklahoma and Texas. It was brought to Kansas by Indians, pioneers, and what not. Red cedars would have been found, but only on rocky outcrops."
In its full natural splendor, the Cross Timbers was haven for several species of animals now extinct. Naturalist Samuel Washington Woodhouse chronicled the wildlife of the Cross Timbers during a 19th-century boundary survey of the Creek Indian Nation.
"He went right through the heart of the Cross Timbers," Stahle said. "He described all the animals: The ivory-billed woodpecker, now extinct; the Carolina parakeets, now extinct; the passenger pigeons, now extinct. The pileated woodpeckers are still there.
"There were, of course, bison and elk," Stahle said. "Descriptions of the buffalo are just amazing. The timbers were on the fringes of the prairie, and when the buffalo were hunted they would charge into the timbers to shake their hunters, pretty effectively. Buffalo were all through the Cross TImbers.
"There were gray wolves and a species of mountain lion. We even believe there were ocelots, whose range now doesn't come any closer this way than northern Mexico."
Stahle said the Arkansas researchers ultimately hope to use what they learn about the Cross Timbers to persuade landowners and others that the trees are worth saving.
"It's been an uphill battle to educate people about what a prairie is and what beauty is," Stahle said.
"Beauty isn't just what's sold on TV. It's not just Yosemite and Yellowstone. It exists in Kansas, too."
-- Mike Shields' phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.