By Cormac Quinn
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There was an oak from 1776 behind the Sugar Shack until a couple years ago. This is why efforts to restore oak trees have begun on the SJU campus; young oak trees have often had difficulty reaching maturity in the SJU Arboretum. To protect these young trees, more than 500 mats were placed around young oak trees recently.

The project was an effort made by the monks of the Abbey, faculty members and students alike to help those trees reach maturity.

Today, many oaks fail to reach maturity because of changes to our ecological landscape. To preserve the arb’s aesthetic, diversity, and utility, Abbey land manager John Giessler believes we must we must work with our natural ecosystem for the future of the forest.

“It’s a gift to future communities. It’s not usual that we are thinking about 150 years of forest stewardship,” Giessler said.

Platoons of monastics, students and locals have beaten back undergrowth and deployed black mats in deer exclosures under Giessler’s supervision. These mats provide room for sunlight to reach the seedling, and space to grow without the threat of looming deer populations.

The threats to young oak trees can have a large impact on their growth. Despite their longevity, many don’t reach maturity.

This can be a problem since the oaks of the arb fed the fires of the first monks in the 1860s, and still provide most of our furniture.

Historically, the original monastic community was careful with the forest they used for constructing and heating their buildings. Adhering to their Benedictine tradition, they planted trees to supplement what they took. Giessler points out that as the community grew, so did their effect on forest resources; by the 1980s the Abbey felt it best to seek a professional approach. They sent the late Fr. Paul Schwietz to get a degree in forestry at the University of Minnesota.

Fr. Paul served as the land manager upon his return, overseeing the planting of 30,000 conifers that earned him the title “Padre of the Pines.” Maintaining a healthy forest means ensuring a steady supply of construction material. Many of the chairs and desks you read this article from were constructed at the Abbey woodshop using oaks from the arb. Serving the community since SJU’s arrival, the continued relationship means SJU must reciprocate its generosity.

Giessler graduated from St. John’s in the class of ’99 after working in the arb for Fr. Paul, and has since taken an interest in oak regeneration because of the problems they face in reaching maturity.

One such problem is that oak seedlings are shade-intolerant, meaning they struggle to grow amidst the undergrowth of the forest. Wildfires used to clear the low shrubs to allow sunlight to reach the seedling, but rarely occur because of our modern land management. While the seedlings are laying in wait for sunlight, they become prime targets for hungry deer. Predators like wolves used to maintain deer populations, but humans have culled most predaceous species.

Because of our changes to the landscape and threat of climate change, Geissler believes it has become our responsibility to preserve as many natural functions as we can.

Jaden Bjorklund, a junior environmental studies major, works for John as a student land manager. He was surprised by the community response, and the diversity of helpers.

“It’s cool to see all the different people working on the same project,” Bjorklund said.

Many mats have already been placed for the protection of young trees and up to a thousand more on the way.

Feature photo by SIERRA LAMMI • [email protected]
Young oak trees are having trouble reaching maturity, so volunteers are implementing techniques to improve growth.