Thriving After Fire – Rare plants and the biologists who search for them

Fire Adapted Hudsonia montana, mountain goldenheather, thrives after wildfires on Shortoff Mountain in the Grandfather Ranger District.  Cooperation between the US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Nature Conservancy helps document their persistence following spring fires.  

Three liters of water barely made a dent in my thirst the first hot September day of monitoring rare plants on Shortoff Mountain.  So, the second day I brought 4 liters and an umbrella to create my own shade.  As we walked in silence, dripping with sweat, back down to the truck, my pants were shredded at both knees from crawling through thorny brush and my umbrella was broken on one side.   But I was smiling.

Earlier that day we had spent hours walking near the edge of Shortoff Mountain in Grandfather Ranger District looking for – and finding in abundance – Hudsonia montana.  This scrubby little plant, commonly known as mountain golden heather, clings to the rocks almost as close to the edge of a cliff as one can get.  It’s a dare devil plant sending USFS botanist, Gary Kaufman, into billy-goat mode as he very carefully picks his way up the cliff side counting plants.

Our goal was simple: use the maps created previous years to visit the areas on Shortoff mountain known to have the golden heather, count the patches of plants using a size-class system and help estimate their current numbers.  But why do this now, on a hot September day when summer seems never ending?  Because the plants were burned earlier this year by wildfires and biologists charged with protecting this federally listed species need to know the impacts of the fire.

Shortoff mountain has burned on average at least once every decade for hundreds of years.  It’s prominent rock outcrops, Table Mountain pine, and bunchgrasses are adapted to the frequent lightning-ignited fires.  The little plant we were looking for, Hudsonia, is no different.  It thrives in this fire adapted ecosystem and has found its niche, only growing in two counties in North Carolina.  In past years there have been dramatic increases in the plants post-fire.  It’s kind of like how cutting your grass with a lawn mower helps the grass grow back thicker.  Except in this case, Hudsonia grows back after fire and creeps further into and over neighboring rocks and mossy areas.

Once we got back to the truck the second day, botanists from the USFS and US Fish and Wildlife Service planned to come back for a third day to sample a few more areas of plants.  What we had seen so far was promising, as expected the Hudsonia as well as other fire adapted plants like little bluestem were growing well.  I hope you enjoy this short video showing the Hudsonia and the plants on Shortoff thriving after the spring wildfire.

 

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Fire Learning Trail Launches

Visiting Linville Gorge on the Grandfather Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest it is hard not to notice the signs of fire. From the iconic wind-whipped table mountain pines gripping the cliffs at the edge of the gorge, to the characteristic clear views, fire has shaped Linville from the beginning.

FireLearningTrail

Partnering with The Nature Conservancy, The Fire Learning Network, and the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists, the Grandfather Ranger District has installed a series of informational signs along Old NC 105 on the west rim of Linville Gorge to share with the public information about fire safety, fire history, fire ecology, and firefighting. Visitors starting at the Information Cabin at the north end of Old NC 105 can visit the signs by driving south along the Fire Learning Trail as they take in the sights of the area.

The signs are accompanied by a series of pod casts featuring radio-style interviews with local fire managers that are available on iTunes (search: Fire Learning Trail) or on CDs distributed free of charge at the Linville Information Cabin.

The Fire Learning Trail is part of an effort to increase education on the history of the Grandfather Ranger District and the forces of nature that have shaped the forests. Specialists from The Nature Conservancy and the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists were on hand at the Linville Gorge Spring Celebration last weekend to talk to the public about this exciting new outreach effort.

Fire and Invasives: The Paulownia Problem

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

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

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.

Wildlife Monitoring: Turkey, Bobcats, and Bears – Oh My!

A key part of the design of the Grandfather Restoration Project includes adaptive management. Adaptive management describes an approach for improving resource management by learning from management outcomes. In order to learn from our outcomes, the Grandfather Restoration Project has undertaken a robust monitoring plan, including monitoring wildlife, vegetation, and watershed health. Monitoring provides reliable feedback on the effects of management actions, allowing managers to refine decisions and project design. Since fire is a key management tool for the project, many of our monitoring studies revolve around the impacts of fire on the ecosystem. One exciting study we are currently working on involves using wildlife cameras to determine whether wildlife are using our prescribed burn areas more than unburned areas. The pictures below are taken from wildlife cameras within the prescribed burn area.

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Turkey

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Black bears

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Bobcat

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Coyote

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Deer

The wildlife monitoring study is a collaborative effort, leaning on wildlife expertise from Pisgah National Forest and the Grandfather Ranger District, the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, and The Nature Conservancy.  While we hypothesize that wildlife are using the areas within our burn units more than the adjacent unburned areas, we will not be able to draw any conclusions until the study is complete this fall. Stay tuned for an update in September!

Rockhouse Creek Prescribed Burn: First ever Growing Season Burn for US Forest Service in the NC Mountains

Exciting news from the Grandfather! We found a window of rain-free days and were able to pull off our first growing season burn yesterday at Rockhouse Creek. This is the first time that a landscape-scale growing season burn has been implemented on Pisgah or Nantahala NFs (beyond site prep burning). While the stated goal was fuels reduction, we were also looking to further the ecosystem change at the site from a mostly closed-canopy Oak-Hickory forest with little herbaceous growth, to a more open woodland condition with a diverse understory.

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Stats

Date: July 8th 

Size: 560 acres

Location: Wilson Creek headwaters near Roseboro, NC

Purpose: Fuel Reduction

Partners: NC Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, Appalachian RD, Pisgah RD, Tusquitee RD, Cheoah RD, Nantahala RD

Treatment #: 4th (last 3 burns were dormant season, last burn 5 yrs ago)

 

The Rockhouse unit was lit by hand, with lighting crews working along the ridges and holding crews along the roads. While humidity was predicted to drop into the 40s the afternoon of the burn, spot weather indicated humidity in the 60s-70s on the site. A dense layer of Mountain Laurel regrowth on the ridges kept the humidity even higher near the ground. Because of the high humidity, it was difficult to get the site to burn even with receptive fuels.  Generally, following ignition we’d get good initial intensity, but it would weaken pretty quickly.  Intermittent 10mph gusts, cloud breaks, and canopy gaps would help increase intensity and spread, and certainly areas where we would strip farther downslope and get some run upslope helped as well. We were able to blacken an estimated 25% of the burn unit. The burn plan differed from dormant season burns in that care was taken to limit flame lengths to 1-2ft to limit overstory hardwood mortality.  

 

Although only 25% of the unit burned, we count this as a success, both in reducing fuels and allowing fire managers in western NC experience with growing season burns. It also provided a great training opportunity for summer students training in fire from the Tusquitee, Cheoah, Nantahala, and Grandfather RDs to participate in a prescribed burning operation. We will look at conducting another growing season burn next summer, taking into account lessons learned from the Rockhouse site. We will look for burn units with a more open overstory, larger pine component, and a shorter time since the last entry (2-3yrs) to increase the receptiveness of the fuels.

 

6 monitoring plots were installed in the Rockhouse burn unit, and pre-burn monitoring was conducted prior to this entry using the Fire Learning Network protocol. We will conduct immediate post burn monitoring over the next couple weeks, and will look at results again next growing season. I will share that data with the group once we get a good picture of the impacts of the burn.

 

New Publication Answers Restoration Questions

GTRA newly released publication from the Southern Research Station in Asheville provides answers to questions regarding restoration in the Southern Appalachians.

The publication, “Restoration in the Southern Appalachians: A Dialogue among Scientists, Planners, and Land Managers”, addresses three key questions for restoration ecology in the Southern Appalachian Mountains:

  1. What is the role of fire, especially when used as a management tool for oak-dominated ecosystems?
  2. What is the relationship between early successional habitat and biodiversity?
  3. How do we regenerate oak ecosystems? 

In addition to addressing current questions in restoration ecology, the publication provides an extensive list of the scientific literature for restoration and fire management in the Southern Appalachians.

 

NC State Forestry Class Visits the Grandfather

The Grandfather Restoration Project is getting recognized throughout North Carolina for leading the way in prescribed burning in mountain ecosystems. The senior forestry operations class from North Carolina State University (NC State) Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources toured the Grandfather Ranger District in April, visiting a prescribed fire unit near dobson knob and viewing wildfire effects in the Linville Gorge Wilderness.

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NCSU Forestry Operations class atop Pinnacles in Linville Gorge