Table mountain pines are serotinous, meaning they are coated in resin and need fire to melt that resin to allow the cones to open and release seeds.
When David Ray joined the Conservancy five years ago, one of his first meetings was with Fire Manager Margit Bucher. “Margit asked me one question,” he recalls. “Were we going to proceed with the Southern Blue Ridge Fire Learning Network?”
He answered yes, but only because he decided to trust Bucher and her idea. “I didn’t understand fire at the time. I’ve come to understand it much better.”
Today, he credits the Southern Blue Ridge Fire Learning Network – a regional network that includes the Conservancy, government and other partners focused on fire restoration – with laying the groundwork for a recent $605,000 grant from the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) to the Grandfather Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest. CFLRP is a new U.S. Forest Service program created in 2010 to encourage the collaborative, science-based ecosystem restoration of priority forest landscapes.
The Grandfather Ranger District grant proposal was very much a group effort. When it was submitted, it included a cover page listing the 13 collaborating organizations. Each section was written by experts from the supporting organizations. And, in an unusual move for federal grant writing, each section listed the person responsible for writing that unit, along with their employer.
According to Grandfather District Ranger John Crockett, that cooperation paid off. “A lot of organizations have land that needs restoration. But, not many have a partnership collaborative that is willing to come to the table. To me, the partnership was the selling point.”
Crockett and Ray credit another partner, Josh Kelly, a biologist with the Western North Carolina Alliance, with much of the grant success. “Josh has been at the table the whole time, shepherding this process. He led the grant writing and had to put a lot together in a very short period of time,” said Crockett.
Kelly, Crockett and Ray visited Singecat Ridge in the Grandfather District earlier this spring to look at a 2,000-acre controlled burn the U.S. Forest Service conducted this winter.
“This is how it is supposed to look,” explained Kelly as he walked along the ridge. “This forest is going to benefit from this burn.”
Bucher, who was also on the trip, agreed: “This is perfect,” she said. “You’ve gotten rid of a lot of the shrubs.”
Those shrubs are shading out other important plants, particularly mountain golden heather (Hudsonia montana), a federally endangered plant found on Singecat Ridge. The ridge is also home to Table Mountain pine (Pinus pungens), which are only found in the Appalachians and nowhere else in the world. Table Mountain pine cones are serotinous, meaning they are coated with resin and need fire to melt that resin, allowing the cones to open and release seeds.
The Grandfather Ranger District is 192,000 acres, including the 11,786-acre Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. Crockett says the Gorge ranks the highest in its need for fire. Several recent large wildfires in the Gorge point to another reason for controlled burning: fuel reduction. The Gorge is also home to a number of fire-dependent species.
“If there is any place in the mountains of North Carolina, this is the place to be burning,” Crockett explained. “We need to be burning the right places and the right times for the right reasons.”
In addition to the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Western North Carolina Alliance, members of the collaborative include: North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, North Carolina Forest Service, Wild South, Trout Unlimited, Southern Forests Network, Friends of Wilson Creek, Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina, Wildlaw, Land of Sky Regional Council, the National Wild Turkey Federation, The Wilderness Society, and the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition.
Some people might find it hard to believe that such a disparate group – including government, conservation and environmental groups – could agree on anything. But, according to Kelly, it is a matter of education. “I have partners who have a skeptical view of active forest management, including human-ignited fire,” he said.
He recounted a recent visit with one of those partners to the Grandfather District. “We walked through the forest. I said ‘this plant is endangered; it needs fire. This other plant doesn’t belong here and it is hurting the forest.’ "
At the end of that trip, Kelly says his colleague was beginning to understand that forest management can be a very good thing for an ecosystem.
Ray agrees. “At first the FLN was all about understanding – explaining why and how certain ecosystems need fire,” he says. “Now, you have people doing burns together in places where they never thought they could put fire on the ground when they were working alone.”
Some of those places are in the Grandfather District. The grant will allow the Forest Service to triple the 2,000 acres they are burning annually in the district. “That may not be enough. It could be 10,000,” Crockett explained. “But, we will know what that number is when we get there.”
Debbie Crane is Director of Communications at The Nature Conservancy