Prescribed fires planned on Shawnee National Forest

Fire helps maintain healthy oak forests, according to scientists who study birds, native plants and other wildlife. 

That’s why the U.S. Forest Service/Shawnee National Forest use fire as a tool to restore Southern Illinois forests.

“Fire rejuvenates the forest. It increases nutrient availability, favors some plants over others, and can remove some litter and smaller trees and brush. This lets more sunlight into the forest floor, which is important for oak trees, the dominant tree in Illinois’ forests, and many sun-loving plants,” said Scott Crist, the forest’s expert on prescribed fire, in a news release. 

Prescribed fire is a planned fire that is overseen by professionals. 

Fall marks the beginning of the forest’s prescribed burn season, during which professionals plan to burn up to 10,000 acres through April 2017. 

Prescribed fires are performed under specific weather conditions and are designed to mimic fire that historically occurred on the forest.

By bringing fire back to the forest, U.S. Forest Service/Shawnee National Forest hope to:

•Encourage the growth of a diverse array of plant life, including sun-loving plants and grasses. 

•Ensure oaks remain the keystone species in our forests. Oaks provide food for about 100 different animals. Using fire to bring light into our forests helps oaks grow. Without fire, shade-tolerant species will take over and eventually replace the oak as the dominant species in our forest.

•Protect human property by reducing the amount of down, dead wood in the forest. Then a wildfire would be less intense.

•Perpetuate prairie and savannah remnants found within the forest. These remnant plant communities provide habitat for several early-successional song bird species, such as prairie warblers and red-headed woodpeckers. Maintaining these open woodland conditions with prescribed fire increases biodiversity in both plant and animal species.

Spotlight on Birds

A more open forest is critical to a suite of bird species on the decline. 

The Central Hardwoods Joint Venture says that long-term fire suppression has caused a significant loss of structural and plant diversity in forests and is a top threat facing birds, particularly those that depend on grasslands or a more open forest, often called a woodland.

“Our research shows that these rare and declining birds could benefit from having fire back on the forest,” said Larry Heggemann, who coordinates conservation action throughout the eight-state region of the Central Hardwoods. 

“Fire suppression became popular in the 1950s, and it allowed an unnaturally dense growth of trees to occur in woodlands. This shaded out native grasses and forbs, thereby reducing the insects that were food for many of these birds.”

To learn more about prescribed burning on the Shawnee, contact Scott Crist at the forest’s headquarters office in Harrisburg, at 618-253-7114.

The Gazette-Democrat

112 Lafayette St.
Anna, Illinois 62906
Office Number: (618) 833-2158

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