The pine-oak forests, woodlands and savannas of the Ozark Highlands and Ouachita Mountains – together known as the Interior Highlands – are a place where black bears roam and eagles soar. This is the largest remnant of a landscape that once stretched from Oklahoma to the middle Appalachians and Eastern Seaboard. Its legendary rivers and vast forests provide drinking water, game, recreation and livelihood for people and rich habitat for wildlife. Here one can also find the last remnants of the prairies that once covered tens of thousands of acres in the Arkansas River Valley and the Ozarks.
Early explorers and Government Land Office surveys describe the Interior Highlands before extensive European settlement as grassy, open woodlands with abundant wildflowers and numerous prairies and barrens. Today the area looks quite different. From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, the forests were heavily cut. Faced with a stripped landscape, people realized what had been lost and took measures that seemed logical at the time; the forests were allowed to grow and natural fires were largely suppressed.
Studies of pine tree rings reveal that fire historically swept through the Interior Highlands every five to eight years. But for the past 50 to 90 years, most forests here have grown without natural understory fires, causing tree density to increase substantially. In the Ozarks’ Boston Mountains, for example, coverage has increased from an estimated historical average of 38 to 76 trees per acre to today’s count of 148 trees per acre, plus another 300 to 1,000 young stems per acre. With more trees competing for nutrients and water, forests have become weak and vulnerable to drought, disease and pests like the red oak borer, an insect that has eaten its way through 1.6 million acres in recent years. Without fire, shade-tolerant trees can take over, exerting pressure on animals adapted specifically to the pine-oak forests. The crowded conditions also increase the risk of intense, uncontrollable wildfires.
The Conservancy’s work in the Interior Highlands began in the mid-1990s in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Prompted by the red oak borer outbreak, the partners developed a plan to restore fire as a natural ecological process in the Interior Highlands. Working through the Fire Learning Network, a nationwide partnership for fire restoration, the Forest Service obtained Congressional appropriations for prescribed burns. Today more than 300,000 acres at 15 demonstration sites within the Ozark National Forest are enrolled in the network and showing marked improvement. Perhaps the greatest outcome from the program has been the incorporation of extensive restoration measures in the national forest management plans.
Fire restoration on private lands in the Interior Highlands has grown substantially since 2004, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funded a Landowner Incentive Program designed to improve wildlife habitat. The Conservancy leads the program with partners from the Arkansas Game and Fish and Arkansas Forestry commissions. So far the program has helped some 60 landowners learn about fire restoration and conduct prescribed burns on more than 10,000 acres.
The Conservancy remains an active member of the Fire Learning Network and is helping the partnership accomplish its goal of restoring 500,000 acres in the Interior Highlands. The Conservancy’s professional burn crew, working independently or assisting state and federal land managers, restores fire to as many as 14,000 acres annually. The Conservancy and its partners also host classes each year that train land managers in effective conservation planning and the safe application of prescribed fire.