It is well understood that wildfires can promote invasive species — where wildfires burn with high intensities, fire removes the duff and litter layer, allowing invasive species that thrive on bare soil to germinate. One of the biggest invasive culprits in this area is Paulownia tomentosa (princess tree). One Paulownia tree is capable of producing twenty million seeds per year, which are easily carried by wind and water. Once the seeds establish in bare soil, the seedlings can grow to a height of 10-ft in a single season.
With the Table Rock Wildfire that burned in the Linville Gorge last fall, monitoring and treating invasive species (including Paulownia) was identified as the top priority in the Forest Service’s response post-fire. As part of the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) for the Table Rock Fire resource values impacted by the fire were identified, and emergency funds were requested to treat invasive plant species. BAER is an emergency risk management tool that allows the Forest Service to respond to post-wildfire conditions that would destabilize or degrade the burned lands. Using BAER authority, the Forest Services and its partners have been monitoring Paulownia, treating infestations outside the wilderness boundary, and hand-pulling along trails within the wilderness.
Paulownia seedlings carpet the forest in areas where the Table Rock fire burned with high intensity near Chimney Gap (photo by Kayah Gaydish)
Starting in August, our partners tasked with monitoring and treating Paulownia noted that there was an explosion of seedlings both inside and outside the wilderness boundary. Ben Prater and Kayah Gaydish of WildSouth, who have been leading the treatment efforts in partnership with the Forest Service, invited me out last week to see this firsthand (and put me to work to help treat the seedlings). I was amazed by the sheer number of seedlings coming up — in areas the forest is carpeted with young Paulownia. In inspecting the infestation, we could see that Paulownia occurs in large numbers only where the fire burned with high intensities. The Forest Service has mapped these areas, and luckily they only cover 8-acres (about 1/2 of a percent of the total fire area). In these areas, total canopy loss and the removal of all duff and litter provides the perfect environment for Paulownia — and thus these areas are the priority areas for treatment.
Ben Prater, Director of Conservation at Wild South, treats Paulownia seedlings with herbicide outside the wilderness near Chimney Gap
While there are some areas that burned with high-intensity outside the wilderness, much of this area lies within the wilderness boundary. Although we can treat those Paulownia seedlings that are outside the wilderness with herbicide, there is no authority to use herbicide within the wilderness. In fact, there is not even authority to hand-pull Paulownia. Without any methods to remove Paulownia from the wilderness, this invasive species would threaten native plant communities and degrade wilderness character.
In response to the infestation, the Forest Service is pursuing additional funding through BAER and authority to hand-pull Paulownia within the wilderness boundary through an Minimum Requirements Decision Guide (MRDG) and use of a Categorical Exclusion under NEPA. The MRDG, which was signed today, is a tool to assist wilderness managers in making appropriate decisions in wilderness. National Forest staff are currently gathering information to prepare a Categorical Exclusion to consider a timely and effective route to control the spread of the infestation. Once the Categorical Exclusion is signed, we will be organizing a broad-scale volunteer effort to get those Paulownia seedlings out before the leaves fall off and the sprouts become hard to identify.
So, as partners I ask you to stay tuned, because we could use all the help we can get in this time-sensitive effort! This will be a great opportunity to work together to help save the Linville Gorge, which holds a special place in all our hearts, from this aggressive invasive species.