Monday, 17 November 2003
The historical role and contemporary uses of fire in southern Appalachian ecosystems
Our project goals were to: 1) document and synthesize information on historical and contemporary southern Appalachian fire regimes, and 2) evaluate the effects of prescribed fire on ecosystem structure and function along a moisture/productivity gradient from xeric, pine-hardwood to mesic, mixed-hardwood ecosystems in the southern Appalachian region. The linkage between the two project objectives is based on the premise that significant improvements in the application of prescribed fire and in the understanding of fire effects are possible with an increased knowledge of historical fire regimes. We characterized the EuroAmerican fire regime and its distribution across the mixed-hardwood forest landscape of southern Appalachia on and adjacent to the Nantahala National Forest from 1750 to the present based on documentary sources and personal interviews. We also gathered traditional ecological knowledge by interviewing Cherokee tribal elders to aid in reconstruction of the historic fire regimes. The role of Native peoplesí use of fire has not been adequately studied but should be recognized as a factor that shaped the environment in southern Appalachian ecosystems. Although the Cherokee people did not record their land management practices through published studies, they verbally passed their knowledge from generation to generation. Knowledge of the historical fire regime for southern Appalachia will help us understand the patterns that may be expected with the reintroduction of fire to these ecosystems. To fully understand potential uses and effects of fire, we conducted prescribed fire studies across vegetation and climatic gradients. Strong topographic and edaphic variation creates gradients that determine vegetation composition, net primary productivity, and susceptibility and response to disturbance. The ecosystems compared were a xeric, low productivity pitch pine (Pinus rigida)/hardwood forest; a dry, moderate productivity shortleaf (P. echinata)/Virginia pine (P. virginiana)/oak forest; and a mesic, high productivity, mixed/hardwood forest. Permanent plots were used to measure long-term effects of prescribed fire on ecosystem structure, function, and sustainability. Sites were located in small watersheds draining first or second order streams which were monitored for changes in sediment and chemistry. Measurements included: fire characterization; vegetation composition, structure, and diversity; soil and soil solution chemistry; and stream chemistry and sediments. These ecosystem process level measurements were taken on all study areas before and after prescribed fire so that regional comparisons could be made.