Burning for Good

Aerial view of the FSUCML North 70 tract

Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) forests, considered biodiversity hot spots, once dominated the coastal plain in the southeastern United States. However, due to past exploitation of the forests’ resources, just three percent of its pre-settlement range remains. Today, Longleaf pine restoration has become a priority in many areas. These forests have proven to be quite resistant and adaptable to climate change conditions and are home to many animals that depend on longleaf habitat and are in need of varying degrees of protection. These include the Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus Polyphemus), listed as threatened, Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi), listed as threatened, and Red-Cockaded Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus borealis), listed as endangered.

We have begun a restoration project of our own at the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory (FSUCML). We are working on returning fire to a Longleaf pine forest on the lab property, along the North 70 tract. This is an exciting restoration project, but it also comes with a unique set of challenges.

In a healthy longleaf pine forest the groundcover should be grasses and some other plants that are about knee-high. As you can see from the growth around Chris Matechik, FSUCML Marine Research Assistant, (who is 6’2″) this vegetation is clearly overgrown. Woody shrubs have displaced other plants.

Perhaps John McGuire of the longleaf alliance described it most appropriately when he wrote, “In the unbroken, primal landscape… fires once frequently moved through these longleaf pine woods like a gentle swell on the ocean’s surface.” These fires encourage the growth of forbs, grasses, and sedges by burning the mid-story, or layer of vegetation that consists of trees whose height is between the heights of the smallest and tallest trees, and groundcover plants. This opens up room for new recruits and exposes sandy, mineral soils.

Unfortunately, except for a small portion of the tract exposed to a wildfire, the majority of the Longleaf forest on the FSUCML North 70 tract has not been burned for so long that no one is certain when the last fire occurred.

Without frequent fires in the North 70, shrubs and hardwood trees have grown into a dense mid-story with a thick layer of organic matter (or “duff”) accumulated on the ground. Re-introducing fire to this landscape characterized by an excess amount of fuels could have caused a very hot burn, with devastating results. Indeed, if fire was haphazardly re-introduced, it could lead to fires jumping from the mid-story into the Longleaf Pine canopy, resulting in high tree mortality.

Before shot of the clearing process on the North 70 tract

Ensuring the safest prescribed burn possible required considerable planning and preparation. We started by clearing the mid-story and groundcover vegetation with a large mulching machine called a gyrotrak that chopped most of the hardwood trees and overgrown shrubs into mulch. We then brought in an army of wonderful volunteers who joined in to clear shrubs away from the trunks of the Longleaf pines where the gyrotrack could not be used. Currently, the volunteers and FSUCML staff are raking duff away from individual trees to reduce the amount of potential fuel in place so that when we dointroduce fire, there is a lower possibility of persistent smoldering fires around each tree. It exposes the tree roots which, if burned, places the Longleaf pines at risk. Therefore, it is necessary to give the pines a growing season to recover from the initial clearing before safely introducing fire to the tract. The North 70 tract should be ready for its first burn in January or February of 2017. Read the latest blog post about this project, written by FSUCML marine technician, Chris Matechik, here.

After shot of the clearing process on the North 70 tract

If you would like to help volunteer for this project, please contact Katrina Bayliss at kbayliss@fsu.edu or 850-697-4159.

The Longleaf restoration project is on the FSUCML blog! Check out the latest entries:

Blog Entry 1 - January 12, 2016

We have also partnered with WeatherSTEM to create a lesson on Fire Weather, which features the FSUCML restoration project. Check it out here.