"Ugh" is about all I could muster earlier this week when I drove through Current River country and saw the too often burned woods that I visit every spring. There's been some resistance to prescribed fire lately, largely due to the misapplication of this ancient natural process, and after seeing these woods burned again, I can begin to understand why.In 1983, ecologist Paul Nelson instituted the prescribed fire program in woodlands after visual evidence indicated that prescribed fire in previously open woodlands could restore the thriving herbaceous layer that once existed before the age of extraction began. At that time, because "burning through timber" was so very controversial, Nelson and his colleagues instituted vegetation monitoring protocols to track restoration activities and the effects of prescribed fire on the landscape. What they found in those early days was that prescribed fire, implemented carefully and, in certain cases, combined with non-commercial thinning projects was integral to restoring a vibrant woodland ecosystem. Light to the ground was the goal, and landscape restoration -not timber management- remained the primary driver in the early days of prescribed fire.
Unfortunately, 31 years after that first prescribed fire event, certain folks implementing fire aren't quite following the guidelines Nelson laid out in his 2005 Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri. In the book's early chapter on ecosystem restoration, the author explains that one can't simply burn through woods and expect a thriving herbaceous layer to respond, especially in the Ozarks. Today, we're dealing with damaged systems, largescale landscapes that have been abused by logging practices and overgrazing by domestic livestock. And so, repeatedly running fire through a damaged woodland isn't going to restore the ecosystem. In the case of this Current River woods, an even-aged dog hair stand of red oaks and black oaks, there is no light reaching the woodland floor. The repeated fires are not accomplishing the task of opening the canopy; year after year, they're burning off leaves in the woods to reveal a chert rubble understory. This is not the desired future condition of a woodland ecosystem as explained in the book. Woods treated carefully with fire do not look like this in early May, despite the late spring:
Light to the ground. When the even-aged stand of scraggly oaks leaf out, light cannot reach the woodland floor. To add insult to injury, if any sign of floral diversity can poke through the chert rubble before leaf on, the ever-burgeoning deer herd in the area sniffs it out, leaving a few scattered sedges and some Bracken fern (a plant that Steyermark as far back as the 1960s noted as an indicator of damaged systems). Chert rubble and thick stands of red oak-black oak is the legacy of this tract of woods, not a high quality woodland ecosystem.
Now the opinion pendulum is swinging back to the early 1980s when folks deemed Nelson an "overzealous" advocate for prescribed fire. If the primary goal of prescribed fire in those Current River woodlands is for the restoration of an ecosystem, they need to lay off the fire and investigate some non-commercial thinning to allow light to reach the floor. Before any thoughts on regeneration of a canopy begins, one must restore the herbaceous layer first. Fire through a warm season grass/forb mix moves differently than fire through thick oak leaf litter. These woods do not represent desired condition of a woodland ecosystem, and, after regularly occurring fires in a damaged system, they have the ecological integrity of an overgrazed pasture.