Using Prescribed Burns in New England to Create Early Sucessional Habitat

Kate Emond

Halilu Daraja

Mallory Durkee


Biodiversity within New England is a cornerstone of our regions identity. The beauty of our landscapes and wildlife inspire and enrich our lives. Although many may not readily appreciate it, biodiversity provides us with many of the things that sustain our lives. By maintaining a wide range of biodiversity, both humans and wildlife are offered a range of ecosystem services. Changes in biodiversity can influence the supply of ecosystem services and displace wildlife that depends on certain habitats. One threat facing biodiversity and wildlife within New England is the loss of early successional habitat. “Early successional habitats include weedy areas, grasslands, old fields or pastures, shrub thickets and young forest” (NRCS, 2010).

Many animal species depend on early successional habitat. Unfortunately, early successional habitat needs disturbance to be maintained. If these habitats are not kept in this early stage, they will grow into mature forests and the animals that depend on them will be displaced. One species in immediate danger is the New England cottontail, whose populations have declined significantly due to reduction of early successional habitat. (NRCS, 2007) Grassland birds and reptiles are also in danger. (NRCS, 2010) “Wildlife and plants are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people” (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2005). Something needs to be done to restore early successional habitat in New England.

Understanding the history of land use in New England is critical to understanding why we keep losing early successional habitat. Major deforestations affected New England forests throughout the last 300 years. “The peak of deforestation and agricultural activity across most of New England occurred from 1830 to 1880. Across much of New England, 60 to 80 percent of the land was cleared for pasture, tillage, orchards and buildings. Small remaining areas of woodland were subjected to frequent cuttings for lumber and fuel” (Harvard Forest, 2011). Later, expansive farm abandonment allowed for the forests to regenerate. White pines dominated the even-aged stands that formed on the abandoned farms. “[The stand] contained a valuable and rapidly growing crop of second-growth timber. As this white pine became marketable, portable sawmills appeared across central New England” (Harvard Forest, 2011). Following the vast white pine harvest, a dominantly hardwood forest developed (Harvard Forest, 2011). These trends continued well into the twentieth century. “Remarkable expanses of maturing forest extend across a densely populated landscape in the northeastern United States” (Harvard Forest, 2011). Although these “maturing forests” provide vital habitat for many animal species, New England’s forests lack early successional habitat which is also critical for another subset of species. All species of animals cannot live in densely, even-aged forested habitat. Some need fields while others need shrubs and barrens. “Populations of many wildlife species that are dependent on early successional habitats are in decline” (NRCS, 2010).

In the past, forest fires created these early successional habitats. Natural fires reduce fuel build up on the forest floor, eliminate competing vegetation, cycle nutrients, and create early successional habitats. (Barnes, 1998, p. 415) However, forest fire suppression was the paramount in New England since the early twentieth century. “Concern by early conservationists over the apparent destructive impacts of fire on forest ecosystems led to a very successful national effort to reduce ignitions and enhance detection and control of both human-set and natural forest fires throughout much of the 20th century” (Harvard Forest, 2011). Media campaigns such as “Smokey Bear” further instilled the idea that all fire is bad and should be put out. The regions extensive fire suppression disallowed for the creation of early successional habitat and environmental professionals are starting to recognize the negative impacts. “Over the past few decades, ecologists, foresters, and conservationists have reconsidered the wisdom of the all-out effort to eliminate fire from our landscape. Without the ongoing occurrence of fire and other human-induced disturbances the vegetation and landscape may change quite rapidly and populations of valued species that depend on the open conditions and specific structures created by fire may decline” (Harvard Forest, 2011). One way to combat the loss of early successional habitat is to implement prescribed burns. Prescribed burns are a safe and monitored way to simulate natural fires. Prescribed burn professionals write burn plans that will identify the best conditions under which trees and other plants will burn to get the best results safely. In short, extensive fire suppression and New England’s history of deforestation led to a monoculture in our forests; by implementing prescribed burns we can add early successional habitat to our landscape.

Though we need funding, the cost of controlled burns is far less than that of our current common method of waiting for a wildfire and immediately fighting to extinguish it.   According to Prestemon, Abt and Gebert (2008), due to past fire suppression “over the past two decades, the US federal government has experienced significant rises in the costs of suppressing wildfires on federally managed and adjacent lands” (Abt and Gebert, 2008, p. 381).  In 2007, the budget allocated for fire protection was $535 million; with an extremely low probability this amount would be enough to cover actual fire suppression costs. (Prestemon et al, 2008, p. 389) This study also concluded fire suppression costs are rising by $17 million per year. (Prestemon, 2008, p. 387)  On the other hand, the cost of prescribed burning is much lower than for suppression.  This new form of management is implemented for as low as $12 per hectare, or $5 per acre. (Van Landingham et al.,, 2008, p. 175)  This means if the increasing budget of $17 million were transferred to fund prescribed burning; the possibility of 3,400,000 acres could be managed by means of prescribed burns.

        Not only is the cost significantly lower than the cost for fire suppression, but this process also ensures less wildfire in the future.  It is also guaranteed to save the Forest Service money in the future.  Prescribed burns were known to reduce flammable fuels in the forest so well that Alabama now offers a Prescribed Burning and Hazardous Fuel Reduction Grant. (Alabama Forestry Commission) This grant allows landowners owning “250 or less acres in Alabama, [who] are interested in control burning 10-80 acres or mulching up to 5 acres, and are not enrolled in another cost-share program,” to apply for this grant. (Alabama Forestry Commission) Alabama is not alone in their pursuit of fire fuel reduction.  Georgia invented their own incentive program where residents with a current Forest Stewardship Plan can receive up to $2500, at $20 per acre of managed land by means of controlled burning. (Georgia Forestry Commission) Along with various other, but similar prescribed burn incentives, education and community support is gained through this method.

A section of 10-80 acres is large enough for many species that thrive in these newly transformed landscapes to colonize the area as vegetation begins to grow.  The Southern flying squirrel is one of these species.  An experiment performed by Karmacharya, Hostetler, Conner, Morris and Oli (2013), reveals success in the survival rate of Southern flying squirrels after a prescribed burn. (p. 672) In this experiment, squirrels were captured and recaptured both before and after a burn.  Other factors chosen for comparison of survival rates were food supplementation and predator removal.  The results gave no exact survival rates.  However, out of the 3 factors considered, survival rates improved most for prescribed fire up to 9 months after a prescribed burn. (Karmacharya et al., 2013, p. 678) Prescribed fire are known to positively affect survival rates of other animals, including New England Cottontail, Ruffed Grouse, Quail, and a large number of bird species on the endangered or threatened list (Degraaf et al., 2005, pp. 22-23).

        The experiment with flying squirrels was limited to the Southern U.S., but habitat management through means of fire is already being implemented in New England. Prescribed fire is currently used annually on 3,000 acres of blueberry barrens in Maine, land that is crucial habitat for Vespar sparrows and Upland sandpipers. (Vickery et al., 2005, p.139) As early as 1987, environmentalists are using fire to eliminate overgrowth of trees and shrubs and restoration of habitat for rare species that require early successional habitat. (Dudley, & Lajtha,1993. p. 288)

Even with these numerous proven benefits of controlled burns, there are activists, landowners, and organizations that are against prescribed burns and there are those that are for it. Animal lovers believe prescribed burns will be a long term effect on animals. Because homeowners are not educated on prescribe burning they are concerned about damages to their property, and/or it being a health problem. There are studies that were conducted past and present to address the concern of prescribed burning. There are also guidelines and laws that must be followed before burning, such as when to conduct prescribed burns and how it must be administered.

Will prescribed burns exterminate animals that are incapable of escaping the treated area? Before burns are set land manager will be evaluating and studying the treated areas for animals and vegetation activities. The United States Department of Agriculture recommends that prescribed burns be planned during times when nests are not being used to provide sufficient escape routes for wildlife. (Wade and Lunsford, 1989, para. 30) Several agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, State of Massachusetts, and other organization, return fire to the land in order to restore resilient habitats for both New England cottontails and people. (Eagle, 2012, para. 3)

According to Luscher (1989), small birds and small mammals would suffer from prescribed burns, because it causes the loss of small ground cover and charring of larger branches that provide food or shelter. (p. 73) However, “Burning can improve habitat for marshland birds and animals by increasing food production and availability” (Wade and Lunsford, 1989). It’s been proven in several states that prescribed burning assisted in the survival rate of various animals and improved vegetation for animals to feed on.

Did Native American use prescribe burning?  If you ask yourself what technology Native American used, your answer will be fire and wood. With this technology they were practicing widespread burning so they could protect themselves from predators, to increase favored game species, and as a tool for war.  They also carefully set wildfires every year to clear overgrown forests and grassland. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2011) According to Carroll et al (2004), Native American elders stated “fires never got this big in the past because people burned, which reduced fuels and resulted in smaller wildfires” (Carroll et al., 2004).

Won’t the smoke that comes from prescribed burns creates visibility problems for driver and affect people with health conditions? Well when it comes to smoke dispersal the speed of wind will be checked.  “Managers reported that they monitored meteorological conditions to avoid burning on days when the smoke was likely to drift toward the…urban area” (Carroll et al., 2004). Smoke can always be reduced by backing fires verses heading fire. According to the U.S. Department of The Interior Bureau of Land Management (2003), “As per public law 95-95, compliance with Federal, state and local air quality regulations is mandatory and will require coordination with state and local air quality authorities” (Attachment 1-14). Any amount of smoke is a health risk, so you must always be careful. You may also be able to request masks or other material from land managers or firefighters to help with smoke intake.

The implementation of prescribed burns can improve and add variety to forest habitats. This implementation will require both community support and funding. We propose that prescribe burning be included in the home buyer education class, that all 1st time home buyers must take in order to receive a certificate of completion. For current homeowner, animal activist, and other who are concerns, we propose that land manager contact all resident and public by mail and media in advance and invite them to watch and ask question of an actual burning by professional. Manager can also set several cameras that can be viewed by all to see the changes. When the land is fully regenerated, they should re-invite the community to see the beautiful benefit of prescribed burns.

        Not only will wildlife benefit from prescribed fires, but the entire ecosystem will improve due to nutrients re-entering the soil and a rise in biodiversity.  Humans rely on nature for resources, ideas and inventions.  Through the cooperation of agencies and public, implementing prescribed burns is one step in the right direction to assuring nature will remain healthy for future generations.


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