Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Innovative Fire Research taking place in the Upper Peninsula

MICHIGAN — In order to better understand fire’s role in the Hiawatha and Ottawa National Forest’s unique and complex ecosystems, the Forest Service teamed up with The Nature Conservancy, Michigan Technological University, Michigan Natural Features Inventory and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The project will initially examine the role of fire in six representative study areas across the Hiawatha’s forested upland and adjoining wetland landscapes. Subsequent study areas are currently being identified on the Ottawa National Forest, The Nature Conservancy’s Two Hearted River Reserve, and we are reaching out to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources with hopes to include non-federal Upper Peninsula lands.  

Shaped by glaciation cycles, the Upper Peninsula landscape is a complex of dry northern forests and vast areas of groundwater dependent ecosystems. It’s evident that wildfire has a significant role in shaping the vegetation within fire-dependent ecosystems such as jack, red, and white pine forest and stands of aspen throughout. What is not well understood is the interconnectivity that fire plays between the upland forests and wetland systems. 

“We anticipate this study will help us understand how fire adapted dry northern forest and pine barren ecosystems and associated wetlands function sustainably with wildland fire as a key disturbance and driver of healthy ecosystem functions,” said Eric Rebitzke, Assistant Fire Management Officer for Hiawatha and Ottawa National Forests.

Wildland fire plays a key role in nutrient cycling (e.g. carbon), habitat conditions, and sustainable fuel loads. Fuel load means the amount of flammable material (potential fuel) for a fire in a given area. Understanding wildfire’s role in creating healthy, natural functioning lands will help the Forest Service determine how to manage wild and prescribed fire to restore, maintain, and eventually sustain specific ecosystem types.  

“Knowing the role fire has played over the centuries helps us identify areas most in need of restoration, types of restoration needed, and urgency of that action to improve the health and productivity of the Forest,” said Rebitzke.

In addition to providing useful information to National Forest land managers, the study will result in improved ecosystem spatial data used to inform modeling efforts. Spatial data, such as geographic information system layers, provides land managers with powerful information that can be used to design and explore various landscape restoration and fuel treatment scenarios. Modeling software uses spatial and other data to predict the results of various treatments on the land.


Aerial view of a wildlife spotting in wetlands near Tie Lake on the Hiawatha National Forest. Forest Service photo.