Learning about the science and practice of fire in Western Maryland.
By Severn Smith and Matt Kane on February 24, 2017
We all remember that field trip in elementary school. The one where the whole class heads into the woods and gathers around the stump of a felled tree to learn about growth rings. The concept is simple, right? You count the number of rings in the tree stump to figure out how old the tree was before it fell or was cut down.
In reality, the science of Dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) tells us a whole lot more about the tree than just its age. Tree rings present an intricate story of the climate and environment in which the tree grew each year of its life. And when we compare the story of one tree with the stories of dozens of others within a given landscape, a fuller, and sometimes smokier, picture emerges.
Dr. Lauren Howard, Professor of Biology at Arcadia University, leads a presentation explaining how to identify fire events within tree growth rings. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Matt Kane)
On an unseasonably warm and sunny day in January 2017, a group of scientists, conservationists, academics, foresters and wildlife managers gathered around the bed of a pickup truck parked at a Wildlife Management Area in the scenic Central Appalachians of Western Maryland.
In the bed of the pickup truck were a variety of samples, or “cookies,” collected from dozens of trees living on the hill towering directly behind the truck. Dr. Lauren Howard, Professor of Biology at Arcadia University, was leading a presentation explaining how to identify fire events within the growth rings.
The unseasonably warm weather had caused a lot of snowmelt, so Dr. Howard had to speak loudly over the roar of the Potomac River headwaters rumbling in the background: “We cut out fire scars from as many trees as we thought safe to do. Back in my lab I have between 50 and 75 samples that we collected from every study area on the mountain.”
Fire's Historic Role
Samples, or “cookies,” collected from trees are used to identify fire events within the growth rings. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Matt Kane)
In the summer of 2016, The Nature Conservancy’s Maryland/DC chapter contracted Dr. Howard to conduct this study to gain a better understanding of the role that natural fire played across the landscape before humans began actively suppressing it.
Human fire suppression began around the turn of the 20th century, when the population in the Western Maryland Appalachians had significantly increased and fire was perceived as a destructive force. We now know that the Western Maryland forest landscapes have adapted to the persistent presence of fire over the hundreds, or even thousands of years prior, and the lack of fire has made them less healthy, less biodiverse, and more vulnerable.
Dr. Gwen Brewer, Science Program Manager for Maryland DNR’s Wildlife and Heritage Service, agrees with the Arcadia findings, and sees controlled burns as critical to the long-term success of those forests, “Natural disturbance processes, including fire, have played a critical role in maintaining biologically diverse forests in Western Maryland for thousands of years. In our current landscape, we must work to replace the suppression of fire with targeted controlled burns to restore and maintain natural communities that benefit from fire. It is either that or we face the very real risk of losing them.”
The benefits that fire can bring to a landscape are remarkably varied. Many species of plants and trees have evolved to be fire-adapted, and may not grow or disperse their seeds until after a forest has burned. Fire also removes dead plant debris from the forest floor, which can reduce risk from future wildfires while also giving young plants and saplings nutrients and space to grow. All that new growth also provides an abundance of food for plant-eating animals, which in turn benefits their predators.
Fire enhances a forest’s overall biodiversity, and by doing so makes it more resilient. When a stand of trees includes many different species rather than a few, they’re less likely to be wiped out by threats like pests or disease. And that resilience is crucial for the species and communities that depend on the services a forest provide.
The Central Appalachians Fire Learning Network
Samples, or “cookies,” are safely collected from a small section of the tree so that, over time, the tree will naturally close the cut and continue growing uninterrupted. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Severn Smith)
The scene at the pickup truck was part of a two-day Fire Learning Network (FLN) workshop – the first in Western Maryland. The FLN, launched in 2002, is a joint project of The Nature Conservancy, the USDA Forest Service and several agencies of the U.S. Department of the Interior (Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish & Wildlife Service and National Park Service). The FLN engages these agencies and local communities to accelerate the restoration of landscapes that depend on fire to sustain native plant and animal communities. Since its launch the FLN has had a track record of success, effectively managing more than 135 million acres of forest across the United States.
In addition to an exchange of knowledge, the FLN also provides something crucial to agencies and NGO’s working on limited budgets: resource sharing. “As forest managers, we know we need prescribed fire in our toolbag,” says Jack Perdue, who oversees state forest management and certification for the Maryland Forest Service. “The question is, with limited staffing and budgets, how do we do that? Collaboration is the best answer and the Fire Learning Network could play an important role toward that goal.”
Controlled Burning in Western Maryland
Partnering on controlled burns creates opportunities for training and attaining essential experience in many new and different fuel types. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Deborah Landau)
The FLN has been helping to facilitate controlled burns in states throughout the Southern and Central Appalachians for years, and is now examining how to reintroduce fire to Western Maryland. The state needs to keep these forests healthy and thriving, especially when you consider the critical role they play in protecting water quality, including that of the Potomac River. Luckily, TNC has a lot of experience when it comes to partnering with federal and local agencies around controlled burns.
Since 2007, The Nature Conservancy’s Maryland/DC chapter has partnered with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to conduct burns across over 660 acres of woods and wetlands, restoring visible natural features to those landscapes. Our track record of successful partnerships with both state and federal agencies is a testament to the effective collaborative framework that the FLN has established. Applying this model successfully in Western Maryland is a critical next step in keeping some of the state’s most valuable natural resources healthy and thriving.
Gerald Vickers, Regional Fire Management Specialist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recognizes the importance of burning within the FLN collaborative framework. “Partnering with The Nature Conservancy and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources on burns has created a great deal of opportunities, including training and attaining essential experience in many new and different fuel types. This has been a valuable program, at a time when all fire agencies are competing for funding support."
Creating Fire Adapted Communities Through Education
FLN workshop participants plot a Spatial Fire Plan on the map of a potential burn site. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Severn Smith)
At Frostburg State University, a group of eight FLN workshop participants gathered around a table with pens, markers and highlighters in hand. In front of them were several maps of local preserve land under consideration for burning. It was day one of the FLN workshop in Western Maryland, and the assignment was to plot a Spatial Fire Plan on the map of a potential burn site.
Step one was to identify all the “areas of value” that would need to be protected within the burn site, which included structures, power lines, agricultural fields, and pre-identified habitats containing a species of endangered butterfly. Keeping these areas safe along with identifying the highest priority areas for a controlled burn were the primary objectives.
When planning a controlled burn, The Nature Conservancy follows the requirements and guidelines outlined in the TNC Fire Management Manual along with local and state regulations. Creating a Spatial Fire Plan is one of many documents that can serve as a guide for fire practitioners, and the exercise conducted during the FLN workshop was intended to replicate an actual planning scenario for a controlled burn.
When agencies and partners are ready to begin planning for real burns, making sure the community is also made aware of the plan and the precautions built into the process will be crucial. Thankfully, many fire practitioners increasingly find that members of the public are open to the idea of controlled burning. However, that wasn’t always the case.
© Forest Service, USDA in cooperation with the Association of State Foresters and the Advertising Council (public domain)
In 1944 the Ad Council began running one of the most successful public awareness campaigns in history, featuring a friendly, yet stern-looking bear named Smokey who famously told the public, “Remember… only you can prevent forest fires.”
In 2001, “forest fires” was updated to “wildfires,” signaling the intention of the U.S. Forest Service to begin changing the prevailing public perception that all fire is bad. Through a combination of public outreach and seeing the benefits of controlled burns first hand, communities in many parts of the country are steadily coming around to the idea.
To successfully burn landscapes at the scale needed to replicate the once natural presence of fire, it is critical that the public is educated and informed about controlled burning. That work will certainly be required in Western Maryland as well, says Ric Lillard, the Regional Fire Manager for the Maryland Forest Service: “Particularly in the eastern hardwood forest region, the role of fire is not well understood by the public. For instance, most people are not aware that oak owes its dominance to historical forest fires. When the public has a good understanding of the importance of prescribed fire to the forest, they will be more willing to accept the practice in their area, and as has been found in some localities in the southeast, desire it.”
One such mechanism for that is the Fire Adapted Communities (FAC) Learning Network, which is a 2013 expansion of the FLN, founded to provide education and outreach at the community level through learning exchanges and partnerships. Another is just good old fashioned door-to-door outreach, where fire practitioners can have real-time conversations with members of the public.
The forests of the Central Appalachians have a vital role to play in the face of a changing climate. Photo © Kent Mason
As The Nature Conservancy and its close partners at the Maryland Forest Service, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and other community partners gear up to continue growing a controlled burn program in the Central Appalachians of Western Maryland, much is at stake.
The forests protect water quality – especially important when most of the water ultimately flows into the state’s biggest economic driver, the Chesapeake Bay – and provide long term economic benefits from selective timber harvesting. Our forests are also home to a significant percentage of the state’s animal and plant species, and are starting to play an even more crucial role in the health of those populations.
As climate change continues to alter habitats and ecosystems, mammals, birds and amphibians are doing their best to adapt through migration, both by moving northward and by seeking out higher ground. But to sustain species migration on this large a scale, the migratory paths through natural areas like forests must stay connected to each other to enable effective passage. And as new scientific models have illustrated, the Central Appalachians will be a superhighway of species migration, which makes keeping them healthy and intact more important than ever.
From their role in supporting biodiversity, to their enormous value as a natural resource and protector of other resources, to the critical part they will increasingly have to play in a changing climate, the forests of Western Maryland are not something we can afford to lose. Bringing fire back to this landscape is one of the best contributions we can make to the long-term success of these vital forests, and ultimately to the plants, animals and people who rely on them.
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