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Fire Returns to the Allegheny National Forest, and Oak and Black Cherry Thrive

One of the spring prescribed fires conducted on the Allegheny National Forest to test the feasibility of the shelterwood – burn technique for regenerating mixed-oak forests

After a century of absence from the Allegheny Plateau of northwestern Pennsylvania, prescribed fire has been reintroduced as a means of perpetuating the mixed-oak forests of the Allegheny National Forest.

The mixed-oak forests of northern Pennsylvania have a strong positive historical association with the American Indian tribes and early settlers of the region and their use of periodic fire to manage the forests for various reasons. That association ended in the early 1900s with the cessation of forest burning. Consequently, current mixed-oak forests have lacked fire to control mesophytic species; resulting in a strong proclivity to convert to other forest types. In the early 2000s, the Allegheny National Forest partnered with the Northern Research Station to conduct an administrative study on the applicability of using the shelterwood – burn prescription (a southern technique to regenerate oak forests) to correct this problem. A 5-year study of spring prescribed fires showed that the burns markedly reduced the birch and maple components of the seedling pool without decreasing the oak component. The study also found that the burns did not reduce the number of black cherry, cucumbertree, and serviceberry seedlings. Now, 10 years after the final harvest, the stands treated with the shelterwood – burn technique are dominated by black cherry and oak whereas the unburned stands are dominated by black birch and red maple. Because of the success of this research, the Allegheny National Forest has been able to incorporate prescribed fire into its current management plan and begin using it to sustain its mixed-oak forests.