Prescribed burns are an important conservation tool used on our preserves throughout the state.
Imagine that you are standing in the north part of the Brown County State Park (about the center of the Brown County Hills forest). Now imagine it is 200 years ago. What would be similar and what would be different?
At first, it might seem quite the same. After all, you would still be surrounded by forests like you would be today. However, if you walked to what is now the town of Nashville, instead of seeing roads and open fields, you would still be surrounded by forests. In fact, the majority of Indiana was covered by forests.
On your walk to what is now Nashville, you notice that the trees are much larger than today’s trees. You might even encounter a wolf, bear, or even cougar. These predators were once common and helped keep the deer population in check.
Fire was occasionally present. Sometimes fire was ignited naturally by a lightening strike during dry weather conditions. Other times, Native Americans used fire as a tool to help clear the understory. An open understory meant they could chase and capture game and find acorns and other tree fruits easier than with a forest floor covered with leaves. Oak and hickory species, which are fire tolerant, thrived in these conditions.
Today, the result of fire is seen at the forest canopy, where oak and hickory species dominate the landscape. Many of the factors that created today’s forests are currently missing or lacking in the Brown County Hills. This means that our future forests may not be as diverse as today.
Prescribed burns have been re-introduced in portions of the Brown County Hills, including the Hitz-Rhodehamel preserve, Brown County State Park and the Hoosier National Forest. These are performed in dry upland and dry-mesic upland forest areas that need this type disturbance to remain viable. Oak-hickory forests support some of the greatest biodiversity in Indiana, from the trees themselves, down to the animals and that feed on the leaves, twigs and acorns.
The lack of top predators, increased forest edge and laws that favor deer population growth have led to a deer overpopulation problem. Too many deer threaten the native understory community, like the wildflowers and the young tree seedlings that struggle to survive long enough to produce seed or grow to their full potential. Hunting helps keep the deer population from growing too much, but there are indications that hunting is not enough. Deer exclosures have been created in several areas to show how an understory thrives when deer are absent. The Conservancy allows deer hunting on some properties located in the Brown County Hills.
Non-native invasive plants also threaten the natural diversity in the Brown County Hills. Non-native invasive plants are very aggressive and typically out compete native vegetation for sunlight and water, leaving only a monoculture of the invasive plant. The effects of invasive plants are chain-like. As the native plant community changes due to invasive plants, so will the animals that survive on them. The major non-native invasive plants that affect the Brown County Hills can be found on this identification guide. The Brown County Hills Project works closely with another local non-profit group, the Brown County Native Woodlands Project, to reduce the threat of invasive plants on the forest community.