Photos by Joel Carlson
Despite holding a significant portion of conservation area in the northeast, municipally owned lands are frequently overlooked in the patchwork of protected lands. Towns rarely have the funds, staff and expertise for intensive management. Restoration and maintenance of early successional habitats can be complicated and expensive. As a result, many municipally owned pine barrens, woodlands, and grasslands have become overgrown. Without active management, the habitat for common and rare wildlife and plants that are dependent on these fire maintained ecosystems have become degraded and wildfire hazard has increased.
In Massachusetts, the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) and the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs have created the MassWildlife Habitat Management Grant Program (MHMGP), which has provided the funding for many municipalities and private landowners of conservation land to begin or sustain wildlife habitat management on their conservation properties. The program has supported the numerous landowners in creating or growing their prescribed fire programs aimed at improving and managing habitats for game species, Species of Greatest Conservation Need as identified in the Massachusetts State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP), and for special concern, threatened, and endangered plant species. The MHMGP began in 2016 and started funding prescribed fire projects in Fiscal Year 2018; since that time (FY2018) it has awarded approximately $1.165 million for habitat restoration, of which over $182,000 has been award to prescribed fire habitat management projects. In 2020 over 25% of the total awarded grant money went to support prescribed fire projects. The grant program has allowed towns who had existing fire programs to sustain and expand their initiatives. Other municipalities saw the grant opportunity as the seed needed to begin active management on their fire dependent lands that benefit wildlife and rare plant species.
The grant program has provided the funds needed to continue momentum in towns with established fire programs. The towns of Yarmouth and Mashpee have implemented prescribed fire prior to the beginning of the MHMGP. The town of Yarmouth completed wildfire hazard mitigation projects funded through Barnstable County in 2009. Mashpee began burning in 2012 as part of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Mashpee Refuge program. Both towns were later chosen as New England Cottontail Initiative sites with prescribed burns funded by USFWS. The MHMGP has allowed the towns to continue management. Prescribed burns have been implemented to maintain some of the previously restored areas and expand treatment areas to improve wildlife habitat and public safety. As their respective fire management programs have matured, towns have begun identifying municipal funding for fire management. Fire departments have become invested in prescribed fire because of the training opportunities and reduction of wildfire risk. Residents have become supportive because of the benefits to wildlife habitat and improvement to public safety. The prescribed fire programs have become an integral part of the municipal land management. Bill Bonnetti, of Yarmouth Division of Natural Resources, said “the grant funded work has made tremendous improvements to wildlife habitat, and the public support (for fire management) has been more than I ever imagined.”
In other towns, such as Barnstable and Sandwich, the opportunity of being awarded a MHMGP grant has prompted the towns to fund the planning necessary to apply for the grant. Having gone through the planning and grant writing processes which have identified the need for fire management, some towns such as Dennis and Barnstable have funded prescribed fire with municipal dollars. All the towns mentioned have worked with Northeast Forest and Fire Management, LLC (NE-FFM), a natural resource and land management consulting firm, to help assess fire management potential, create prescribed fire plans, and/or implement the prescribed burns. By working with NE-FFM, the towns have been able to tap into local expertise that would otherwise be inaccessible to most municipal governments. It has allowed towns with small staff to undertake what can be a resource and time intensive endeavor.
In summary, the MHMGP has enabled fire management that benefits wildlife to flourish in what was previously a much more challenging environment. The grant program has reinvigorated programs that were sputtering, kickstarted management in much needed habitat, and provided examples to towns that have not yet begun managing their fire dependent lands. In the not too distant past, prescribed fire on town owned lands was rare, but with the continued support of the MHMGP it may become the norm.