Fire as A Tool To Manage Oak Ecosystems - a summary of an exceptional event

On July 25, 2018, nearly 100 people gathered for a field tour and knowledge-sharing session in the Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin. The Guild worked with partners at The Nature Conservancy, Society of American Foresters, and the Oak Woodlands and Forests and Tallgrass Prairie and Oak Savanna Fire Science Consortiums to design this workshop. The goal - to increase awareness and understanding of tools for assessing the condition of oak ecosystems and potential management scenarios. Although there were tour leaders, the event was designed to have attendees participate, brainstorm, share expertise, and learn from one another. That was a huge success!

The importance of this topic was highlighted by the early sell-out of the event and the diversity of experts and professionals that met at the Stoddard/Dahir property of Highland, Wisconsin. Here, leaders facilitated rich discussion of various topics at six field stations on private land that has been aggressively managed to control invasive species and restore an oak ecosystem.

The breadth of perspectives represented, from foresters to wildlife managers to burn bosses, lead to rich discussions. One field station addressed the information you would need to gather when determining what type of management is appropriate. At this site, some focused on geology and soils, while others looked at the native plant communities, timber resources, invasive species, wildlife presence and needs, and fuel loads – among many other aspects. The past land use and other historical context was also noted, as well as human considerations such as landowner goals, neighborly relations, permits, historical artifacts, and more. In all, this really captured the multifaceted approach that is needed when planning a land management project – with or without fire.

Another station was designed to look at how prescribed fire can be integrated into the Wisconsin Managed Forest Law (MFL) and similar programs in other states. Historically, prescribed fire was strongly discouraged or prohibited on properties enrolled in MFL. This has changed in recent years but is still an ongoing discussion. 

One of the key issues against using prescribed fire in MFL properties, or other sites where a future harvest is planned, relates to the impact the fire has on the timber value of remaining trees. To help address this issue, the event organizers invited Joe Marschall from the University of Missouri – Columbia to present on research he has done on the subject. Please check out the webinar we recorded with Mr. Marschall ahead of the meeting for more details on his work. In short, yes, prescribed fire can have an economic impact on the timber, primarily associated with charring, but there are several factors that can increase or decrease this effect.

We were able to use a variety of tools at one of our field stations to investigate the impact of decades-old fires on the soundness of standing timber. Often the fire scars on these trees had closed but they still exhibited extensive internal rot that had entered at the fire scar and traveled up the trunk.

We also looked at the many positive aspects of prescribed fire in oak ecosystems. The Stoddard/Dahir property was once nearly completely invaded with buckthorn and honeysuckle but after years of mechanically and chemically controlling these species, they are now able to use fire as a tending tool to keep these species at bay. They are also starting to see some vigorous oak regeneration in areas where it was inconceivable a few years ago. Dr. Dan Dey with the US Forest Service Northern Research Station and Mark Sargent/Jesse Bramer with Michigan DNR gave presentations on the benefits of prescribed fire as a tool in oak management. In addition to the on-site presentation, Dr. Day recorded this webinar.

One of the real advantages of this field tour was to hear the landowners’ goals, see their management plan, visit the site, and discuss the results and predicted outcomes with a wide-ranging group of professionals. Perspectives varied among attendees, which made the conversation rich and highlighted the complexity of setting forest management goals and meeting them. Not only is it difficult to accomplish these goals over long periods of time with changing circumstances and climactic challenges, but success can be perceived differently based on different perspectives or desired outcomes. This speaks to the importance of specific, actionable goals, while remaining flexible and letting the forest lead. This skill can be expensive, and arduous to attain, but in the presence of so many seasoned experts, this group learned a lot in a short period of time.

The partnership involved in designing this event made for an invaluable gathering of knowledgeable practitioners from Missouri, Michigan, Wisconsin, Maryland, Iowa, and beyond. We look forward to more gatherings like this one, where the right – and wrong – times to use fire as a management tool can be better understood, utilized, shared, learned, and accepted, for the health and well-being of oak forest types. 

-Article written by Colleen Robinson and Mike Lynch of the Forest Stewards Guild. Photos by Colleen Robinson.