Photo by John Howle
Various conservation organizations trained to carry out the burn on Cumberlands WMA.
Burning good ol' Rocky Top
Tennessee's North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area is a glowing example of what a prescribed fire in hardwoods can do to create oak savannahs. It can create ideal habitat conditions that support a range of wildlife, but burning these areas takes an approach slightly different than the usual pine forest burn.
Jason Lupardus, NWTF regional biologist for Kentucky and Tennessee, remembers dragging a drip torch for the first prescribed fire on Massengale Mountain.
"I left part of my soul on that mountain many years ago, and it was a blessing to come back and see the wildlife," said Lupardus. "I saw elk, black bear, grouse and many turkeys there in September, and it was great to see our collaborative efforts have yielded such great habitat."
One of the original goals of the Cumberland WMA burn was to restore woodland or savannah habitat to its original quality when the Europeans first came through the region.
"When the early explorers came through, the writings said the area was teeming with elk, grassy savannahs and oak stands," Lupardus said. "The objective was to bring back native grasses and periodic prescribed burns to the ecosystem."
For the hardwood forests that dominated the area, a two-step approach of burning and timber thinning took place.
"We've done prescribed fire and timber thinning, but will only meet our objective if it's done annually," said Lupardus. "These efforts were heavily encouraged when the elk were initially re-introduced to the area to promote more wide-scale habitat."
Some of Lupardus' early research showed elk preferred the native grasses for forage and preferred hard mast or acorns during fall and winter.
In December 2000, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency introduced 167 elk, which established a 670,000-acre area for elk restoration in the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Tennessee.
"Managing these oak woodlands or savannahs can only be accomplished with periodic prescribed fire and thinning to maintain favorable conditions for quality understory food sources, nesting habitat and needed brood range for not only elk, but also a variety of wildlife species," said Lupardus.
It's about time
Timing is everything when it comes to a prescribed burn in a hardwood forest.
"Prescribed fire used during the dormant season in hardwood stands kills fewer trees because they are not actively growing," said Lupardus. "Fire weather must be closely examined prior to lighting the first match so favorable winds, humidity and mixing heights will ensure desirable effects with this management tool."
Photo by John Howle
Close up of prescribed burn during dormant period
A fire regime clears the fuel on the ground and encourages native, warm season grasses and forbs, especially fire-dependent legumes, to grow.
"Instead of letting the forest come up and get too thick, fire creates an open savannah understory, and trees will start putting out that good mast," said Lupardus. "Hardwood trees such as white oak and red oak are more fire tolerant, and they are great mast producers."
For hardwood trees, dormant season burns are safer to the tree than growing season burns.
"The best time to conduct a dormant season burn in most parts of the country is during December, January or February, when the sap is low in the trees," said Lupardus.
The North Cumberland WMA was first prescribed burned in 2008 in an effort to convert harvested cutovers into grassy wildlife openings and natural savannahs, and the property has been burned every year, weather permitting, since.
Getting the job done
Terry Lewis, TWRA volunteer, spearheaded the project. Lewis owns 800 acres he uses for wildlife management and outreach, taking wounded veterans and people with disabilities hunting, and for use in education.
"In February 2009, we had 46 volunteers from the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, Campbell Outdoor Recreation Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, NWTF and Quail Unlimited attend a prescribed burn and safety class," Lewis said. "The following month, the volunteers participated in the first of many controlled burns to promote new wildlife openings on the WMA."
Keeping a burn under control on steep, mountainous terrain was a challenge for the crew.
"Safety in these areas was a major concern, so the volunteer group was divided into five teams with a leader assigned to each," said Lewis. "We used hand-held radios for communication and had support teams that provided transportation for equipment like chain saws, water tanks and fuel for drip torches."
The success of the prescribed fires on North Cumberland WMA didn't end when the habitat improved. Lewis developed the wildlife management plan with WMA Area Manager Stan Stooksbury, created more than 40 acres of wildlife food plots around Hatfield Knob and cleared several more acres for wildlife openings.
Lewis is also responsible for the construction of the Hatfield Knob elk viewing tower, where people can now watch elk, turkeys, deer and other wildlife browsing in the openings.
"We knew when we burned to create ideal habitat for elk, it would also be good for turkeys and other wildlife," says Lewis. "I'm 60 years old, and it's important to understand that your value is in what you leave behind." — John Howle