Fire suppression and concomitant fuel alteration of historically fire-adapted eastern U.S. oak and pine-hardwood systems over the past century present land managers with unprecedented challenges to restore these systems. Changes in interrelated factors of plant species composition, fuel attributes, and physiognomy in today’s oak and pine-hardwood systems necessitate combinations of simultaneous vegetation and fire management to produce pertinent fuel conditions such that near-term and future prescribed fire behavior will better promote the restoration and sustainability of historical conditions. Hence, during the restoration process, metrics associated with the quantity and quality of fuels, and the plant species providing and benefiting from them, form the basis for success.
I am involved in a collaborative effort with Pat Keyser and Mike Stambaugh to determine optimal management strategies to quickly and sustainably restore oak savanna systems. Within the framework of a currently ongoing study, treatment combinations of prescribed fire (growing season, dormant season), canopy reductions (light, heavy) and controls are being applied to 50-acre units across four study sites spanning the historical eastern U.S. oak ecosystem from western Tennessee and Kentucky to western North Carolina. Treatments will be evaluated with respect to a number of restoration objectives, manifested in metrics associated with (a) reduced loading of heavy fuels (>100 hour); (b) increased herbaceous (i.e., grasses) fuel loading; (c) improved competitive position of oak and shortleaf pine regeneration; (d) reduced midstory density; (e) reduced stocking of fire-intolerant, mesic tree species in the seedling and sapling size classes; (f) improved herbaceous species richness and cover (especially grasses); and (g) more moderate fire behavior. The metrics chosen are those that most effectively assess likely fire behavior, success in fuel reductions, and in restoring oak regeneration, woodlands, and savannas, and such metrics should be useful in the restoration of other fire-adapted systems in the U.S.