Controlled Burns Aid New England Forests

January 27, 2005

For at least 5,000 years before Europeans arrived in North America, Native Americans periodically set vast swaths of New England on fire. Settlers brought the practice to a halt by the mid-18th century. But today conservationists are again burning the forest to restore the ecosystem and dampen the fire risk to some towns.

Tim Simmons is a restoration ecologist with the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program in Westborough. Speaking of the early Native Americans, Simmons said fire "was sort of a Leatherman [or multi-tool] of their time. They used it for everything."

Burning thinned forests, enabling Native Americans to see game, to grow blueberries, and to have elbow room when setting up camps. Fires also served to spur new plant growth and to control insect pests, Simmons said.

Since the landscape burned with such periodic frequency, many of the plants and animals became fire-adapted, according to Simmons, who noted that such species now depend on periodic fires for their survival.

After more than two centuries of fire suppression, some species are headed towards extinction.

To save the plants and animals, Simmons and his colleagues are engaged in a long-term program of prescribed burns, each year intentionally setting about 1,000 acres (400 hectares) on fire.

"We started very small, and we're still going very small," he said. "One thousand acres a year is a big year for us, but it's enough to sustain populations of rare plants and animals."

Of special interest to Simmons and his colleagues is returning fire to New England's pine barrens and sand plain grasslands. These flat lands of porous sand and gravel formed at the ends of ancient glaciers. Since water seeps quickly through the soils, only certain plants are able to take root there. And since European settlers built their cities on most of the plains, only a few remain.

Kennebunk Plains

Parker Schuerman is the southern Maine preserves manager for the Nature Conservancy in Moody, Maine. He collaborates with Simmons on the prescribed burn program at the Kennebunk Plains and Wells Barren, which are home to a host of endangered fire-adapted plants and animals.

The landscapes, which are divided by a drainage system, comprise less than a total of 1,000 acres (400 hectares) of droughty and acidic soil dominated by plants that are either drought-tolerant or fire-dependent, Schuerman said.

"The grasslands themselves are [human influenced] natural communities, resulting from past land use," he noted. Archaeological evidence indicates the lands were periodically burned starting at least 5,000 years ago.

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