Following the expansion of the KU Field Station's Baldwin Woods Forest Preserve in spring 2016, the Lawrence Journal-World published this article.
As Bill Busby spoke Thursday morning at a small parking lot off County Road 1055, a mile north of Baldwin City, the brake lights of passing vehicles invariably blinked as their drivers slowed for a curve at the bottom of a steep slope.
The ridge at the top of what is known as Baldwin Hill marks the dividing line between two watersheds. The land to the south drains to the Marais des Cygnes River. The steep slope and everything to the north drains to the Wakarusa River and, eventually, the Kansas River. Busby is a wildlife biologist with the Kansas Biological Survey, not a geologist, so he doesn’t know why the land breaks so sharply at the ridge line. He does know the thick woodlands that cover the slope owe their existence to the steep incline that prompts motorists descending the county road to tap their brakes.
The heavy timber to the east and west of County Road 1055 is a surviving island of a forest that sprang up at the edge of a glacier that covered northeastern Kansas during the last ice age, Busby said. As the glaciers retreated 12,000 years ago, tallgrass prairie came to dominate the landscape with the aid of wildfires that destroyed the woodlands, except at sites like Baldwin Hill.
“On steep north-facing slopes, fire didn’t spread as easily,” Busby said. “The forest contracted to islands on northern slopes.”
The woodland, known as Baldwin Woods, is not only unique in its survival but as an island of a forest biome that stretches east to the Atlantic Ocean.
“This is the far western-most edge of the Eastern deciduous forest,” Busby said. “A lot of the trees you see here can be seen in Virginia. This is as far as it goes. As a biologist you realize you are in a forest with a lot of high-quality, historical characteristics.”
It’s a unique resource and has been recognized as such since merchants in the 1820s broke the Santa Fe Trail. Busby said the woods were identified in early maps of the trail, which hugged the ridge line south of the then 3,700-acre woods in a section called “the Narrows.” Other than riparian areas along streams, the Baldwin Woods were the last timbered land the travelers would see until they arrived at the Rocky Mountains.
What those early travelers probably didn’t appreciate was what makes the woods so interesting to Busby and fellow biologists who study its 456 acres, which now make up the Baldwin Woods Forest Preserve and a field station of the Kansas University Kansas Biological Survey. Their interest is in the site’s rich diversity of plant and animal life and the lessons to be learned from species surviving at the extreme edges of their ranges.
According to a Kansas Biological Survey brochure, the greater Baldwin Woods, which was named a National Natural Landmark in 1980 by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, is home to nearly 80 species of woody plants, half of which are trees, and another 500 species of flowering plants and ferns. There are another 500 species of lichens, mosses and fungi.
Biologists started tagging and measuring trees in the field station in the 1980s and have updated the survey every decade since, Busby said. The work tracks species that are expanding and thriving as well as those losing ground.
Another survey explored how species of trees respond to available light in the dense woods, Busby said. It was found trees that do not need a large shade gap to thrive, such as hackberries, are doing better than oaks and other trees that do.
“The same thing can be seen in the Ozarks,” he said. “Hackberries are now the most abundant tree in Kansas.”
Those unable to identify tree species might not find the Baldwin Woods that unique, as timbers have reappeared in eastern Kansas with settlement and the absence of wildfires, even as northern slope and riparian woods were lost to agriculture, Busby said. Those new timbers are of a different character than the old-growth, virgin forest of the Baldwin Woods. Hedge and honey locust thrive in the newer timbers rather than the oaks and hackberries of the Baldwin Woods, he said.
In the dark canopy of the woods, old growth has real meaning. There are towering sycamores and cottonwoods in areas with deep soil and available moisture, Busby said. Other trees are survivors from the days when only Native Americans gazed upon the woods.
“There are reportedly a couple of burr oaks in here that are more than 250 years old,” Busby said. “Those kinds of trees might live 300 years.”
As a zoologist, Busby is involved in a survey of the wood’s rare animal species. The woods, too, are the westernmost range of a number of species, including the red-bellied snake, flying squirrel and grey squirrel, he said.
The research preserve has grown in the greater Baldwin Woods, which also includes the southern portion of Douglas County State Fishing Lake to the east. In the late 1960s, KU acquired an 80-acre tract from the Rice family, Busby said. It expanded to the west with later acquisitions of 80 acres from the Breidenthal family and 40 acres from the Wall family.
This past year, the woods more than doubled in size from 202 acres to 456 acres with the addition of property bordering on the west. The lands were acquired from Ray Wilber, Cathy Dwigans and John and Gloria Hood after the woodlands were designated the state’s first Legacy Forest Program.
Larry Biles, state forester with the Kansas Forest Service in Manhattan, said to earn that designation Baldwin Woods was considered with other woodlands in the state the forest service submitted for an outside advisory group’s recommendation.
“The group suggested Baldwin Woods as the highest priority area in the state,” he said. “That site has as much special diversity as anywhere in the state of Kansas. It’s not only the western edge of the deciduous forest, it’s on the northern edge of species like the black jack oak.”
The Legacy Forest designation qualified the site for a like-named USDA grant of $500,000 that the Kansas Forest Service administrated, Biles said. That plus grants from the Douglas County Heritage Conservation Council and a gas pipeline mitigation fund made possible the purchase of the additional 254 acres, he said.
Biles and Busby said another factor in the successful expansion was the dedication of the landowners who sold their properties at well below market value to preserve the rare resource.
“It is noteworthy that the USDA said the landowners exhibited the spirit of legacy as well as anybody they have ever worked with,” Biles said.
Although Baldwin Woods is to remain a research site, there is an interest in allowing some public access, Biles and Busby said. Visitors currently have to get permission to enter the field station.
“Larry Biles has a vision of hiking trails,” he said. “We’re trying to find a place that won’t conflict with continuing research.”