Tuesday, February 28, 2012

March 2012: Cause for Celebration


On a brisk March day in 1983, history was made in the Niangua Basin. Paul Nelson, then Chief of the Natural History Program for parks, lit the first match on a 40 acre tract of white oak-black oak-post oak woodlands named the "Demonstration Unit," ushering in the implementation of prescribed fire in woodlands in the Midwest. That morning, as staff were preparing for this historic event, foresters with the state wildlife agency and the local news crews arrived at the site. The foresters banged their fists in anger, "you'll kill timber," they said, "you'll make the natives restless." This area, you see, had been maintained with fire by local landowners since settlement, and before that, by Native Americans for the past 5,000 years. Nelson continued with the fire event much to the ire of many who didn't understand his concept of ecosystem restoration. That night, the local news channel offered a glowing report supporting the fire event on the Demonstration Unit, explaining to the night's viewers how important fire is to maintaining a woodland.

Since that day in 1983, agencies and private landowners throughout Missouri have treated thousands of acres of fire-mediated natural communities with prescribed fire towards a goal of ecosystem restoration, the goal of implementing a natural disturbance factor that gave rise to our biodiverse landscape over thousands of years. But in the early 1980s, the opposition to prescribed fire remained stalwart, even causing the refusal of publication of the first Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri until the fire mediated systems were renamed--"woods aren't supposed to burn," some editors claimed, "but savannas can." And so, the term "savanna" was employed in the 85 edition to describe what we now more appropriately call woodland.

There are those who still call fire-mediated woodlands in the Ozarks "savanna," but the term (in that regard) is an artifact of political bickering about the use of fire in "timber." With the 2005 edition of the Terrestrial Natural Communities, savanna was placed in a category defined by a 10-30% canopy closure very widely spaced trees and not a lot of it left in Missouri. High quality Ozark woodlands--called "savanna" in the 1980s--possess a 30->80% canopy closure. Most true savanna in Missouri has been converted to pasture with fescue replacing the rich matrix of warm season grasses and prairie forbs. These post oak-dominated savanna landscapes have been heavily grazed for over 100 years, and few examples remain. Structurally, savanna can still be seen in the Ozarks in Maries County (Central Plateau), but the herbaceous layer has been destroyed by grazing by domestic livestock. The only high quality example of savanna in Missouri is in the Central Dissected Till Plains country, far away from Ozark woodlands. Regardless, both savannas and woodlands require fire for survival. (See here an earlier post on true oak savanna in the Willamette Valley...)

In the course of 29 years, a handful of Ozark landscapes have seen 10 prescribed fires, one every 3 to 5 years. On a large landscape scale, the preservation of biodiversity remains a priority. Of course, with the widespread application of prescribed fire throughout the state, there are certain (unfortunately too many) situations where frequent fire is harming woodlands because land managers fail to consider other factors that influence biodiversity (too closed canopy, deer problems, grazing history that didn't leave any herbaceous layer behind, and so forth). A little knowledge and too much fire can be dangerous, even in regards to ecosystem restoration efforts.

After the squirrely winds associated with tonight's front die down, and after we have a little more moisture on our very dry 1 hour fuels, great hope abounds that those crisp March mornings where the leaves crunch a certain way will return, offering a successful spring fire season measured only by acres treated. Check here for Spot Forecasts from NOAA to see if your favorite tract of woodlands are being managed with prescribed fire, 29 years after it was initiated as an institution.

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