FS & Partners Research Role of Wildfire in Maintaining Healthy UP Forests

Gladstone, MI -- In order to better understand fire’s role in the Hiawatha and Ottawa National Forest’s unique and complex ecosystems, the Forest Service has 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 (UP) lands. 

Shaped by glaciation cycles, the Upper Peninsula landscape is a complex of dry northern forests and vast areas of ground water 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.  

Aerial view of a wildfire spotting in wetlands

“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. 

Back view of a wildland firefighter working on a Rx fire under red pine

Over the last century, the U.P.’s landscape has been altered from its more or less natural pre-settlement state. The study will help land managers understand what the pre-settlement ecosystems looked like in the past and how they sustained themselves naturally. Then, the Forest Service will be able to look at similar areas today and determine where prescribed fire would do the most to improve sustainability of the Forest and build resilient communities that may be threatened in the event of a fire such as the Duck Lake fire of 2012. This lightning caused fire consumed 21,069 acre and destroyed 136 structures. Forty nine of which were either cabins or homes.

Sustainably-managed national forests provide other benefits as well to the American people. They include providing clean drinking water (to more than 180 million people), wood products, and recreation settings for tourism. For instance, estimates indicate that Hiawatha National Forest supports 980 jobs in the local area and contributes $34.5 million in labor income for wage earners and businesses. 

Because of the complexity of the project, the several partners will each be tackling different aspects of the work. Forest Service personnel are leading the organization and design of the project as well as contributing funding. The Nature Conservancy is contributing LANDFIRE experts to modify vegetation data to more closely represent what is actually on the ground and model ecosystem departure using the updated spatial data. Similarly, Michigan Natural Features Inventory will be conducting groundwater dependent ecosystem surveys, to identify fire dependent species composition and structure as well as to document any clear signs of past fire. Michigan Technological University staff and students will be taking peat core samples in lowland areas to determine fire frequency and intensity in those lowland ecosystems.  

Currently, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources staff are collecting field samples of previously burned tree stumps and cross sections of live fire scarred trees in Hiawatha National Forest plot locations; combined their field work will result in a comprehensive fire history analysis of the study areas.

Cut face of a stump, with a chainsaw sitting alongside it.

“This fall through next spring, our Wisconsin DNR personnel will be in the field collecting tree bore samples that will be examined microscopically for evidence of fire,” explained Jed Meunier, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 

“It’s a complicated study,” said Rebitzke, “but all the partners are excited by the innovative project, especially because we anticipate it will provide a new template for use of technology that public and private land managers will want to duplicate.”

With additional field work to be completed in 2018, the partners anticipate preliminary results to be forthcoming later in 2018. For more information about this project, contact Eric Rebitzke at 906-428-5800.

About the U.S. Forest Service
The U.S. Forest Service is an agency under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and as such is part of the federal government’s executive branch. The mission of the U.S. Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.

The Forest Service manages 193 million acres of land and is the largest forestry research organization in the world. National Forest System lands provide 20 percent of America’s drinking water. The mission of the U.S. Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.

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