Sunday, July 26, 2015

Old Saw

With the publication of the 2005 edition of The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri by Paul Nelson, I thought the debate regarding the necessity of fire for the restoration of Missouri's woodlands was over. I didn't think I would end up explaining that there is no silvicultural treatment that can be used as a substitute for the ancient chemical process of fire to restore an ecosystem in a fire-adapted landscape. Carefully prescribed and applied, fire is integral to the sustainability and promotion of the genetic biological matrix that define a woodland system. I am well aware of misapplied fire, fire in damaged systems, fire conducted in inappropriate seasons, fire out of prescription that causes significant, irreversible damage.

Further, fire behavior is shaped by slope, aspect, topography and fuels. Fire will move differently (and hotter) through dense, thick leaf litter resulting from an overstocked canopy than through a rich grass-forb matrix. Fire behaves differently on south facing slopes than north facing slopes and so forth, so blasting a north slope with fire to "create" a woodland is irresponsible. Fire will burn hotter and potentially more damaging through out-of-context systems, those areas that have not had regularly occurring fire, or have been highly damaged by years of logging and grazing, areas without a grass-forb mix in the understory, the historic condition.

Unfortunately, high quality systems where fire has been applied responsibly and carefully are rare in Missouri. Today, researchers are conducting fire effects studies in degraded systems, areas that have not been restored and never had integrity to begin with. What is disconcerting is that these flawed research projects are allowing for authoritative pronouncements proclaiming that the results of improperly applied fire in ecological trash is damaging, that all fire must be bad. But it's not. A lot of the new research is irrelevant to ecosystem management in high quality systems.

I'm sorry that there are so few areas in the Ozarks that still have the intact soil profile and herbaceous layer that supports native biodiversity on a landscape scale. Long histories of grazing, logging, and fire suppression have destroyed the opportunity for recovery, especially in today's climate that is far removed from natural. There are still thousands of acres that would benefit from carefully applied fire and ecological thinning, but there are so few land managers qualified to do it.

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