By Eric Aldrich
In the fall of 2007, after more than five years of careful planning and research, The Nature Conservancy conducted its first prescribed burns in its Ossipee Pine Barrens Preserve.
For almost 20 years, the Conservancy has been protecting land in the pine barrens of Freedom, Madison, Tamworth, and Ossipee. These lands represent a globally rare forest type, New Hampshire’s last viable occurrence of a northern pitch pine/scrub oak pine barrens. The Conservancy now owns more than 2,900 acres in the area.
The pine barrens are an important habitat for several bird species that are declining regionally, such as whip-poor-will, nighthawk, Eastern towhee, and brown thrasher; more than a dozen very rare moth and butterfly species are also found here. Accordingly, protecting and maintaining these pine barrens are among the goals of the state’s recently completed Wildlife Action Plan.
While it’s critical to continue protecting what remains of the Ossipee Pine Barrens, land protection alone isn’t enough. Maintaining the pine barrens’ unique fire-dependent habitat requires active and careful management.
Plans to restore and maintain this special habitat have been taking shape for more than five years, starting with research into uncommon bird and insect species. Additional research has examined fuel that has been accumulating throughout the pine barrens over the past 50-plus years because of fire suppression. In some areas, fuel loads (the accumulation of woody debris and dense vegetation) have reached potentially hazardous levels, which could result in difficult-to-control wildfires. This research culminated with the completion of an ecological and fire management plan in 2005.
In the past few years, the Conservancy has been clearing fire protection buffers on its lands to provide improved safety for neighboring homes and businesses in the event of a wildfire. The buffers of 150 to 300 feet wide are created by timber harvests that reduce tree density so that crowns of remaining trees are not touching. Also, scrub oak and other low-growing vegetation has been mowed in selected areas. The areas that were burned this week had been prepared in advance by timber harvests and mowing.
The Conservancy plans to continue using prescribed fire on pre-treated 10-20-acre units on its preserve with trained, well-equipped burn crews. All of those units are prepared by harvests and mowing. The prescribed burns will be conducted only when all safety parameters are met -- during days when weather, wind and other conditions are just right, and with an adequate force of trained crew members.
Precautions will be taken to limit smoke and to ensure that the prescribed burn stays within its boundaries. In addition, fire suppression vehicles will be available on-site. Each prescribed burn will be completed in one day.
Funds to assist the Conservancy's ecological restoration of the Ossipee Pine Barrens have come in part from the U.S. Forest Service (Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry), and the U.S.D.A. Natural Resource Conservation Service's Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program.