Because spring burning is highly dependent on the weather, I will be posting about prescribed burns at work in a short series of posts. At this time, we have completed 1 scheduled burn on Prairie Plains Resource Institute preserve lands, and assisted with another burn for Nebraska Game and Parks.
The first burn was at Griffith Prairie, the flagship prairie, work center, and in progress education center for Prairie Plains Resource Institute (PPRI). The burn unit is in a loess hills bluffs prairie and covers about 80 acres (though it was more than that due to the topography – flat ground is much closer to areal calculations than hilly terrain.) The flashy herbaceous fuels made this prairie burn go along pretty smooth and pretty fast. The Platte River borders the north end of Griffith.
In the photo below, it shows what happens to prairies and grasslands that are not managed with fire or are overgrazed. Juniper is not a fire tolerant species, so therefore it readily invades areas within its range that are suppressed of fire – man-made or natural. It is also an increaser, invading overgrazed rangelands and prairies, monopolizing soil moisture, lowering biodiversity, increasing precipitation loss through canopy interception, leading to an increase in the aridity of the site.
The second burn for the week was at Indian Cave State Park and was my first woodland prescribed burn to work on. The terrain was mostly steep and heavily wooded, typical of the Missouri River Bluffs country. Prescribed fire in oak woodlands are carried by oak litter (leaves and semi-decomposed leaves), which burns much more slowly than do the flashy fuels of prairies and grasslands. Generally, woodland fuels have more shade and more moisture than do prairies, and can require the use of much more drip torch fuel just to get fire going and keep it advancing. The objectives for the burn were to control the exotic and highly invasive Garlic Mustard* (Alliaria petiolata), as well as reduce woody plant density and return the forests and woodlands to a semblance of their historical structure (meaning more savanna and woodland and less closed-canopy forest).
The state park is being burned annually for the next several years until a specified reduction in woody plant density is reached; then the burns will be on a 2-4 year frequency. Herbaceous plant diversity will increase over the next several years, providing wildlife habitat and helping to restore ecosystem processes and functions. Herbaceous plants are the first plants to decrease following the suppression of fires in savannas, woodlands, and forests. Even 10 years of fire suppression can, in some cases, cause total elimination of herbaceous plant species within the interior of wooded areas; leaving highly fragmented herbaceous plant communities to cling to the perimeter of woodlands. More reading on this topic can be found below:
Paul Voosen, E&E Reporter – Cascading species shift looms in fire-starved eastern forests
Marc D. Abrams – Fire and the Development of Oak Forests
Gregory J. Nowacki and Marc D. Abrams – The Demise of fire and “mesophication” of eastern forests
Unfortunately, for both plants and prescribed fire managers, many people fear fire; an old European mindset which has conquered much of our natural lands and brought forth the biological devastation that we have today. However, fire is required in almost all terrestrial land ecosystems in North America, as it is one of the driving forces of plant evolution, succession, germination, seeding, and flowering. Mother Nature’s beauty declines with the suppression of fire. When used appropriately, fire is a good thing, especially when restoring damaged ecosystems.