Here we summarize some basic issues related to maintaining the vegetation in the Sutton Wilderness and also some Human-induced problems.
Some vegetation maintenance issues
Lack of fire in maintaining grassland and preventing red cedar encroachment.
Prescribed burns are not carried out in the Sutton Wilderness, presumably because of the danger to surrounding properties should a fire get out of control. One consequence of this is the spread of Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), native to the eastern US but not originally common in central and western Oklahoma because it is readily killed by fire. In the absence of fire in the Sutton Wilderness the cedar spread and covered large parts of the grassland – until is was removed mechanically by tractors and then burned onsite in pits. This procedure is needed periodically in the absence of fire. Of course, periodic fire would also remove other species – such as Bradford Pears, that are invasive in open fields, and would create a more fire-adapted flora (and fauna).
The grassland areas of Sutton Wilderness are typically cut by tractors at the end of the growing season – late fall, when nesting bird activity is not present and most other biological activity has wound down in anticipation of winter. The year 2017 was an exception, a failure in communication between the contractor responsible for the mowing and the City led to much of the grassland areas being mowed in late June.
Lack of grazing to recycle nutrients and maintain more natural prairie.
According to Warren Harden, long-time Norman resident and a birding companion of Dr. Sutton, the Sutton Wilderness has a thick, overgrown understory devoid of wildlife diversity due primarily to the several decade-long absence of grazers. A better management strategy is needed to reestablish better habitat attractive to more wildlife and to honor the memory of George Miksch Sutton, who often commented on how important grazers were to the balanced habitat of Hospital Lake (the main lake in Sutton Wilderness).
A portion of Warren’s exact words, sent in an email, provide insight into the history of the Wilderness:
“…In Norman we would frequent Hospital Lake, now Sutton Wilderness, which had been used by Griffin Memorial Hospital for a farm and for outings to the lake by patients. The farm had a dairy herd that grazed the property which later was leased to someone who also grazed cattle there. Doc often commented on the importance of the grazers balancing the habitat and keeping a rotation of pioneering species around the lake. The result was a diverse habitat of flora and fauna. Numerous ground dwelling, low shrub and canopy bird species were easily found and studied. When the property became Sutton Wilderness, the farmer’s lease was terminated and the grazers removed, the reason given being that the area could not be a native wilderness with the exotic cattle present. ….. The result can be seen today in the overgrown understory mostly devoid of all ground dwelling animals, basically a biological disaster area so overgrown as to be impossible to walk off trail. ….. the situation being what it has become, I am uncertain of the success of reintroducing a grazer since the only grassy area is around the perimeter of the property. A grazer might not even be able or want to penetrate the undergrowth to initiate change. Labor intensive and costly human intervention would probably be needed to begin the change.”
Grazing (by bison and prairie dogs), together with unchecked fires, were the two main factors modifying the natural Oklahoma landscape. Both are seemingly difficult to apply today to the Sutton Wilderness environment. Not because they are difficult to implement technically, but because of the social issues involved.
Artificial ponds do not replicate natural waterways.
The main lake in the Wilderness, known as Hospital Lake, has recently undergone a major renovation to the dam impounding the lake’s water. The water levels are currently (Summer 2017) quite low and are awaiting significant rainfall to refill the lake. Several other smaller lakes and ponds are found in the wilderness – all lakes are artificial, though beavers have modified some of the smaller lakes. To understand much more about Beavers and how the modify streams see this article and this extensive Beaver Restoration Guidebook. While the lakes in the Sutton Wilderness exist along natural stream channels, the borders of the lakes are not representative of most natural lakes that are found along floodplains. Artificial lakes in Oklahoma and elsewhere, intended primarily for water retention for cattle or for fishing, often do not have the very shallow slopes characteristic of most natural lakes. Often the transition between water and hot, dry lakeshore is very short and unfavorable for many organisms. The main wetland that appears to be relatively “natural” is that immediately below the dam, where there is a nearly permanent source of water from the dam and the terrain is quite level. Here a cattail (Typha latifolia) marsh is present.
Invasive species (species not native to Oklahoma and spreading)
Not all vegetation is “good” for the Sutton Wilderness. Mentioned above was the invasive Red Cedar – that while native to Oklahoma is capable of dominating the landscape if not suppressed by fire. But there are a number of other shrubs that are not even native to Oklahoma – or North America, that are widespread in the Wilderness. These include Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis), Bradford Pears (Pyrus calleryana), Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense) and others. Along some of the regularly maintained trails there is Bermuda Grass (Cynodon dactylon) where people have probably brought its seeds in on their shoes and where mowing maintains it. It is especially prevalent on the pathway leading into the wilderness from Rock Creek Road.
Dogs and their owners
As we have noted, the main users of the Sutton Wilderness are 1) people walking dogs 2) people jogging and 3) people fishing. The first two groups of people dominate the current user community. Somewhere very far down the list of users are people trying to look at or discover “nature”. To be fair, most users of the Sutton Wilderness would rightfully claim they are enjoying nature by walking or jogging there. It certainly is better than do this in most people’s neighborhoods, where there 1) is no “convenient” place for the dogs to defecate and 2) running requires crossing streets and traversing sidewalks that may be noisy, and may be blocked by cars.
However, there are multiple problems with walking dogs in the Sutton Wilderness. Dogs, by their nature, are hunters and even if on a leash will startle animals nearby. Of course, anyone who has walked in the wilderness knows that many dogs are let off-leash, though their owners are usually nearby. Such dogs can rapidly catch wild animals that cannot easily escape (rabbits, snakes, lizards, small turtles etc). Perhaps this is a small overall impact. Another impact is the dog feces that are not picked up by some owners. This is not only an inconvenience to other people who might step on it, but it also potentially introduces diseases to wild animals. Finally, to other people walking or jogging in the wilderness, an off-lease dog can be a startling experience. Although many owners justifiably claim their dog won’t bite – anyone who has been bitten by a dog may justifiably be fearful. Dog owners are often not aware of the emotional trauma their off-leash dogs can induce in other people. For the above reasons dogs and other pets are not allowed on trails in most nature centers, including the Martin Park Nature Center in Oklahoma City and the reasons are spelled out on their website.
While the Sutton Wilderness seems the ideal place for a jog, jogging in a wilderness park is a disturbance to many forms of wildlife. Certainly birds that might be present near the main dam in the wilderness will move away from it and avoid the dam if people are present (fishing or running). Likewise for bike riding (not officially allowed in the wilderness but still occasionally seen, since signs do not clearly prohibit it).
Invasive plants from historical plantings and their spreading by visitors
The Sutton Wilderness has many non-native plants, some of which are quite invasive and spreading. This is discussed in other parts of this website.
Fishing debris, such as floats, lead weights and fishing line are found throughout the main lake area. As long as fishing is a major pastime in the Wilderness these items will need to be periodically cleaned.
While we have not noticed many people consciously throwing trash over the years in the Sutton Wilderness, the strong Oklahoma winds can bring in trash from almost any direction. Periodic efforts are needed to clean the trash from next to the main walkways or wherever it is found. Although some organized cleanup activities have taken place in the past, some areas of trash has been present for months (and still remain as of April 2018). The lack of trash cans does not help – but having trash cans would require regular maintenance that the City may not be able to provide. Away from the main trails, there are old barbed-wire fences, concrete blocks and other debris of past years. This has never been removed.
Efforts are made by the city to keep the trails in fair condition against the inevitable erosion produced by heavy rains. In late 2017 the main trail around the lake was resurfaced with gravel chips and the trail widened by bulldozer. Part of the trail was asphalted from the enlarged parking lot to a lookout over the upper part of the lake. The dam was, in April 2018, partly covered with soil and grass to reduce erosion.
However, there are a few points of concern here. Material brought in for trail surfacing has, at least in the past, included limestone gravel and asphalt-coated rocks, both not native to the wilderness and capable of altering the vegetation growing on and around the trail. Bermuda grass follows the trails and has spread to some of the more open trail areas.