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4,000-year study supports use of prescribed burns in Southern Appalachians
Date:4/6/2010

he relative absence of fire over the past 250 years has altered forest composition and structure significantly, Christensen said.

"The vegetation we see today in the region is very different from what was there thousands or even hundreds of years ago," he said. "Early explorers and settlers often described well-spaced woodlands with open grassy understories indicative of high-frequency, low-intensity fires, and a prevalence of fire-adapted species like oak, hickory and chestnut, with pitch pines and other (low-moisture) species on ridgetops. Today we find more species typical of moist ecosystems. They've moved out of the lower-elevation streamsides and coves, up the hillsides and onto the ridges."

The study was funded by the U.S. Forest Service. It was conducted at the Wine Spring Creek Ecosystem Management Area on the western slope of the Nantahala Mountains, at elevations between 1280 and 1430 meters.

Aside from historic and scientific interest, knowing more about pre-settlement fire regimes in the region may help forest managers today understand the likely responses of species to the increased use of prescribed fire for understory fuel management, Christensen said.

However, he cautioned that because of widespread changes that have occurred in the forests as a result of centuries of fire suppression and other human activities, as well as climatic changes, "prescribed burns may or may not behave similarly to fires that occurred in the past. Fires today likely would burn hotter and more intensely than fires did in the past.

"Also, although history tells us what could be restored, it doesn't tell us what should be restored," he added. "That depends on which species, habitats and ecosystem services we wish to conserve."

The study was co-authored by Kurt A. Fesenmyer, a former student of Christiansen who is now a geographic information systems (GIS) specialist with Trout Unlimited in Boise, Idaho.

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Contact: Tim Lucas
tdlucas@duke.edu
919-613-8084
Duke University
Source:Eurekalert

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