Inside the Source: Fire in Upland Hardwood Forests

 November 25, 2019 

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Let’s Talk about Fire in Upland (Oak) Hardwood Forests 
By Callie Jo Schweitzer

Managing the upland hardwood forests of Alabama is nothing short of challenging. Beautiful and diverse, the forests are a result of unbelievable consequences. These forests came about after tremendous disturbance and they remain tied to disturbance, whether introduced by us or by nature. At the turn of the previous century, these forests were subjected to a perfect storm of disturbances that resulted in the stand structure and species composition we have today.

Most foresters are aware of the story of the American chestnut. This majestic species is purported to have occupied one of four dominant tree-canopy positions in our upland forests. The death of these giants was unique, as the chestnut blight resulted in a “death in place” scenario, and this created a peppering of dead trees and small open areas in stands.

At the same time, human demographic changes were rampant, with the demise of Native American populations and the movement of Euro-Americans to the South. Along with these changes came different expectations and uses of the forests, as the forests were exploited as an almost inexhaustible resource. We harvested timber to meet our needs as a growing nation, without regard to future forest composition and structure. We increased the amount of grazing by domestic animals and influenced the natural pressures from wildlife by hunting and habitat manipulation. Also, the people in the early 1900s used fire in ways that the Native Americans may not have; fire was a broad-based tool used to clear out underbrush, drive out varmints, and clear logging areas. Fire also was set accidently and allowed to run its course. Regardless, this perfect storm of disturbances resulted in the oak-dominated upland hardwood forests of today.

While forest managers are not suggesting returning to these more wild times, we do suggest that mimicking some of these disturbances may be beneficial to sustaining the species composition (especially oaks) that we desire. This desirability is reflected by landowner preferences—many landowners would prefer to keep oaks in their stands. The judicious use of fire in hardwood stands may assist with meeting these goals.

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