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Prescribing Fire in Eastern Oak Forests: Is Time Running Out?

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Before European settlement, vast areas of the eastern US deciduous forest were dominated by oak species. Evidence indicates that periodic understory fire was an important ecological factor in the historical development of oak forests. During European settlement of the late 19th and early 20th century, much of the eastern United States was impacted by land-clearing, extensive timber harvesting, severe fires, the chestnut blight, and then fire suppression and intensive deer browsing. These activities had the greatest negative impact on the once-dominant white oak, while temporarily promoting the expansion of other oaks such as red oak and chestnut oak. More recently, however, recruitment of all the dominant upland oaks waned on all but the most xeric sites. Mixed-mesophytic and later successional hardwood species, such as red maple, sugar maple, black birch, beech, black gum and black cherry, are aggressively replacing oak. The leaf litter of these replacement species is less flammable and more rapidly mineralized than that of the upland oaks, reinforcing the lack of fire. The trend toward increases in nonoak tree species will continue in fire-suppressed forests, rendering them less combustible for forest managers who wish to restore natural fires regimes. This situation greatly differs from the western United States, where fire suppression during the 20th century has made a variety of conifer-dominated forests more prone to stand-replacing fire.
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Keywords: Historical ecology; disturbance; fire suppression; oak replacement; succession

Document Type: Regular Article

Affiliations: School of Forest Resources Pennsylvania State University, University Park PA 16802

Publication date: 2005-09-01

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  • Each regional journal of applied forestry focuses on research, practice, and techniques targeted to foresters and allied professionals in specific regions of the United States and Canada. The Northern Journal of Applied Forestry covers northeastern, midwestern, and boreal forests in the United States and Canada.
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