Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Have you been to the Ouachitas?

It has come to my attention in recent months that there is discussion among the field of landscape ecologists that fire might not be so great for shortleaf pine regeneration. At least in the short term. I have listened to several folks discuss the issue of pine regeneration in fire-mediated systems, which all pine woodlands are, as they've all adapted to frequent, low intensity fires through a millenia. But the issue that has been raised which has incidentally raised my personal hackles comes from the concept of pine regeneration from the standpoint of a timber production model.

Frankly, if one is interested in restoring a pine-bluestem woodland with all the associated pine woodland understory components like little bluestem, and the faunal communities that come along with a short fire return interval, you'll have to burn every 2 to 3 years if you're dealing with a pine woodland out of context with its historic character. In Arkansas, in the Ouachitas, and in scattered parts of Missouri around Ste. Genevieve, certain land managers have done a fine job (based on Missouri woodland restoration models) of restoring the understory and the canopy of their pine-bluestem woodlands to bring back that grass-forb dominated mix. Send fire through oak leaf litter and the fire kills everything, including pines, but a flashy fire through grass-forb mix runs quickly through the area not even leaving a scar. Looking at Arkansas, the land of shortleaf pine restoration, and at the nice restored woods outside of Ste. Gen, where pine regeneration occurs in fire mediated systems, the Ouachitas generate lots of KV funds because of their regeneration, and they burn those same profitable woodlands on a 2 to 3 year rotation, sometimes annually. So why is Missouri resistant to prescribed fire in pine woodlands on a largescale basis?

I can't speak to the economics as well as others, but from an ecological standpoint, I can ask the question of those promoting a ten year or longer fire free interval for the regeneration of pine woodlands: Have you been to Hawn? Have you been to the Ouachitas? Have you seen pine regeneration in these woodlands with a developed grass-forb mix? Fire moves differently through dense, thick oak leaf litter than it does through the flashy fuels of little bluestem, Aster patens, Aster turbinellus, Gillenia, and other woodland forbs.

I confess that it has been a little challenging listening to esteemed speakers talk about the necessity of long term fire free intervals in an effort to restore pine woodlands. I realize I'm not a published academician, at least not in this field, but from long term experience and anecdotal evidence, as well as 25 years of rx fire in pine woodlands in Arkansas and 30 years of rx fire in Missouri, I will pronounce that pine regeneration occurs on its own once the grass-forb structure is restored first and foremost, and as fire moves through a restored pine woodland system such as at Hawn. Pine regeneration occurs in spades, and without a ten year fire free interval. Take fire away from the woodlands at Hawn or the Ouachitas and you'll be busting through oak brush for twenty years. Keep up the fire. Fire through oak litter is much hotter and destructive than fire through restored systems that have a thick grass-forb structure.

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