Repeated Prescribed Fires Help Sustain Oak Regeneration in Eastern Forests
The oak regeneration problem is one of the most important forest management issues today in the Eastern United States as many wildlife species are dependent on acorns. A Forest Service study has shown that repeated prescribed fires may improve the regeneration potential of oak in canopy gaps. These findings can help managers in their quest to sustain this forest type throughout Eastern North America.
Oak dominance is declining in eastern forests, as canopy oaks that die or are harvested are often being replaced by other tree species, to the detriment of the many wildlife species that depend on acorns. Evidence of historic fires in oak woodlands and forests has led to the use of prescribed fire as a tool to improve oak regeneration.
Forest Service scientists studied the effects of repeated fires during a 13-year period in the Vinton Furnace State Experimental Forest in southern Ohio. Prescribed fires applied three to five times in experimental units reduced the density of small, nonoak trees but had little effect on larger overstory trees. In year 8, natural canopy gaps formed during a regional white oak decline. In these gaps, tree regeneration was strikingly different in burned and unburned gaps.
Unburned gaps were being filled in by shade-tolerant saplings, such as red maple and beech, and oak seedlings remained small. In burned gaps, fires had eliminated most of the tolerant saplings, allowing a greater amount of light to illuminate the forest floor, facilitating the development of larger and more competitive oak seedlings. Thus, multiple prescribed fires followed by the creation of canopy openings may considerably improve the sustainability of oak forests.
Forest Service Partners