Monday, April 16, 2012

Restoring Fire to Ecosystems

Midwestern Oak Woodland actively managed by fire.
Fire is a fascinating force of nature.  Its use or disuse results in huge consequences.  If you think about it, we all use fire in one form another probably every day.  If we use a combustion engine or a gas heater or gas stove we have used fire.  This of course has ecosystem consequences due to drilling for gas and the carbon dioxide produced after combustion.  There is a lot of power in the ability to control fire and was likely one of the first steps towards technological advancement of the human race.  Less applicable to most of us "modern" humans is the role of fire in ecosystems.  Again, the use and disuse of fire has huge consequences on how an ecosystem functions and what it becomes.  For thousands of years native cultures throughout the world have used fires to control, engineer, and improve ecosystems.  For example, it is very likely the Tall Grass Prairies of the Midwest would be extremely rare if it were not for Native Americans purposefully burning prairie grass often on a nearly annual basis for thousands of years.  Natives started the fires to remove trees and shrubs, and thereby improve the productivity of the land from which they derived their all their resources for living.  Farmers today still benefit from the rich soils left behind as a legacy of the Native Americans fire management technique.  In the rainforest, natives still today employ a slash and burn technique to clear land for farming, then slowly letting the land return to rainforest.  Certain types of soils in the Amazonian Rainforest still are amazingly rich even thousands of years after slash and burn management by the native.  Ponderosa Pine Woodlands of the Western United States and Oak Woodlands of the Midwest also are a legacy of Native Americans purposefully burning ground cover to kill off the abundance of trees and shrubbery.  The huge benefits of fire in ecosystems wasn't entirely realized until so called more intelligent, more "modern" people groups eliminated fire from the ecosystem.  In the name of technological advancement a lot of more ancient technology was forgotten simply because it was thought the new was better than the old.  As a result soil productivity decreased causing the land to be less productive, open woodlands where small safe controlled burns took place were filled in with trees causing major dangerous forest fires to become more frequent, and ecosystems were invaded with fire intolerant and less productive species.  It is only within the past 30 or so years that fire has been reintroduced to ecosystems as a management tool and we have rediscovered its huge benefits.

Oak Woodlands, like the one in this video, have been dependent on humans burning them every decade or so for many thousands of years.  When they are burned the underbrush and less productive plant species such as maples are removed and the soil enriched.  All benefiting the productivity of the oak trees and in turn befitting wildlife and people economically, aesthetically, and safety wise.

I had several posts on Oak Woodlands last fall pertaining to fire in the ecosystem and specifically Oak trees.  Click here.

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