Managing Woodlands with Prescribed Burns

I learned so much from my sources on the Wisconsin DNR staff while researching this. It has given me the nudge I needed to begin working towards burning my own woods.

Managing a woodlot means looking back and moving forward. “Forest regeneration is messy,” says Brad Hutnik, Wisconsin DNR Silviculturist/Forest Ecologist. “It involves harvesting, and it may require prescribed burning. Foresters work with the stand they have right now, but they are really interested in the stand that they will be passing on to future generations.”

History of Burning Woodlands

“As we incorporate fire into our woods management tool kit, we talk about ecology like it is a new science from the 1970s, but woods management with fire has been carried out in this area by indigenous communities for thousands of years,” says Michele Witecha, Wisconsin DNR Prescribed Burn Specialist. “In some states, fire was more lightning induced, but we have an extensive history of managed fire that these communities used for local natural resource management, land clearing, and cultural/ceremonial purposes.”

That changed when European settlers moved into the area. “In the U.S.,  the very first conservation laws were centered around fire suppression,” says Jed Meunier, Research Scientist with the Wisconsin DNR Division of Forestry. “After the devastating 1871 Peshtigo Fire that killed 1,500 people, we thought we were going to lose all of our forests to fire, and the mantra at the time was: if we don’t cut it all down quickly, fires are going to get it first. But at the same time a lot of low severity fires were burning all over Wisconsin. Looking back, many of those low-severity fires were actually beneficial.”

Why burn?

    Our oak resource is aging. “We can regenerate oak on sandy soil, but elsewhere in the state you don’t see many young stands of oak or even young oaks in the forests,” says Hutnik. “Historically, fire would have given oak an advantage. If fire came through, oak seedlings and saplings would sprout back more easily than some of their competition. That’s what created the oak savannas and forests. When you take away active fire management, the woods slowly convert to other types of trees.”

Mixed woods are more difficult to burn. “You can carry a fire if you have oak duff,” says Meunier, “but as you have more and more leaves from other trees, they hold more moisture and break down faster. They rot and create a wet blanket effect. As they become more common in the canopy, your leaf litter is made up of more and more of these mesic species — types that thrive on moderately moist soils. That is hard on oak seedlings that like contact with soil.”

To read more of this story, check it out at My Wisconsin Woods.

1 reply

  1. Good read. Learned a bit and wonder how I can apply this to my suburban area of Texas. We have number of different Oaks (Live, Water, Red) intentionally planted. Although there are some guidelines to the types of trees we can plant nowhere do I find guidance from out local government how interacts with out environment. Had to look up and like the definition of the word “mesic” Now your article makes me think… We have been making use of our Texas A&M University’s info for planting natives, cultivating crops, etc. I will now look at how they advise looking into the future for land management. Have a great day, Michael

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