Focused Conference Calls: Fire in New England Oak Ecosystems

In April 2015 we hosted a focused conference call to investigate the current research questions on this topic. Here we've posted the summary of that call. The conversation on this subject shall continue with research briefs, webinars, and an oak/fire capstone workshop organized by NAFSE in New England in June 2016.

Managers in northern New England want to learn about the fire ecology of oak-dominated ecosystems and the implications for land management decisions. The purpose of this call was to catalyze conversation between managers and researchers to analyze current issues and information, to understand how that information is being used, and outline what questions still remain. The call focused on a site in the Green Mountain National Forest called the Dome as an example of an area with a known fire history in an oak-dominated forest, but where a transition towards maple forest is evident.

Many managers want to identify areas appropriate for fire reintroduction and understand the research behind current fire management practices in oak-dominated systems. Research on fire in oak forests in New England is limited; however, some research from other regions may be applicable here as well.

This discussion focused on the current range and optimal conditions for oak forests. Oak sites in New England are typically located on thin soils where competition is limited and where fire may have been present in the past. Sunlight and aspect (south and mostly west in this case) may have influenced oak persistence on the Dome site. It was noted that an area of oak with repeated hot burning after the clearing in the 1800’s returned as hickory in a more southern site. Burning once every 3-5 years promotes hickory and causes oak mortality. Oak and hickory both grow after disturbance, but oak tends to grow faster and hickory ends up in the understory. An area near the Vermont site was subject to a recent burn and has returned as a beech forest.

The Dome site in Vermont is close to northern end of chestnut oak range, and there are sassafras and red pine in the site. Through an extensive oak inventory, it was found that red oak patches are found as far north as Ontario. A question that remains is: what if rare understory species don’t need fire? Maybe oak is self-perpetuating and fire is not needed on those sites. Or perhaps the understory may have been grasses and eliminated by shrub cover now due to lack of fire. Native Americans were known for burning their berry patches and ericaceous shrubs. A map from the mid-1800’s does show the area as forested.

More questions arose that need further research to be answered. Is it all soil and aspect that is producing these oak forests? Are we going to make the site more or less resilient to climate change if we utilize fire management? How do we characterize tipping points of maintenance? An adaptive management approach was suggested, with controls within ecologically sensitive areas. The group expressed that the only way to understand the variation of responses is to burn and document. Doing nothing was actually stressed as an active form of management. Some participants noted that in going forward, there should be an effort to promote diversity with the understanding that fire is not the only disturbance. There is a reluctance to try fire when we don’t know enough about the outcomes.