Release Date: Mar 2, 2018

Contact(s): Tracy Fidler, 618-253-1031

HARRISBURG, IL (March 2, 2018) – Fire helps maintain healthy oak forests, according to scientists who study native plants, birds and other wildlife. That’s why Shawnee National Forest uses fire as a tool to restore Southern Illinois forests.

“Spring brings ideal weather conditions for fire. This means Southern Illinoisans may see fire across the landscape – from the national forest, to state and privately-owned lands,” said Nate Hein, who coordinates the forest’s fire team.

By bringing fire back to the forest, Shawnee National Forest hopes to:

  • Encourage the growth of a diverse array of plant life, including sun-loving plants and grasses.
  • Ensure oaks remain the keystone species in our forests. Oaks provide food for about 100 different animals. Using fire to bring light into our forests helps oaks grow. Without fire, shade-tolerant species will take over and eventually replace oak as the dominant species in our forest.
  • Protect human property by reducing the amount of down, dead wood in the forest. That way if a wildfire happens, it would be less intense, and potentially easier to control.
  • Perpetuate prairie and savannah remnants found within the forest. These remnant plant communities provide habitat for several early-successional song bird species, such as prairie warblers and red-headed woodpeckers. Maintaining these open woodland conditions with prescribed fire increases biodiversity in both plant and animal species.

“Fire rejuvenates the forest. It increases nutrient availability, favors some plants over others, and can remove some litter and smaller trees and brush. This lets more sunlight into the forest floor, which is important for oak trees, the dominant tree in Illinois’ forests, and many sun-loving plants,” said Scott Crist, the forest’s Fire Management Officer. “A more open forest also provides habitat for birds that are considered a priority for conservation.”

Spotlight on Birds

A more open forest is critical to a suite of bird species on the decline. The Central Hardwoods Joint Venture says that long-term fire suppression has caused a significant loss of structural and plant diversity within forests and is one of the top threats facing birds, particularly those that that depend on grasslands or a more open forest, often called a woodland.

“Our research shows that these rare and declining birds could benefit from having fire back on the forest,” said Larry Heggemann, who coordinates conservation action throughout the eight-state region of the Central Hardwoods. “Fire suppression became popular in the 1950s, and it allowed an unnaturally dense growth of trees to occur in woodlands. This shaded out native grasses and forbs, thereby reducing the insects that were food for many of these birds.”

About Prescribed Fire

Prescribed fire is a planned fire that is overseen by professionals. It is performed under specific weather conditions and are designed to mimic fire that historically occurred on the forest.

The size of each prescribed burn varies but people located near the burn may notice smoke during and after the burn. The Forest Service monitors smoke generated during prescribed burns. On most burns, members of the public can expect smoke to be visible in mid-afternoon and dissipate within a few hours. 

Between fall 2017 and April, Shawnee National Forest professionals plan to burn up to 10,000 acres or more. To learn more about prescribed burning on the Shawnee, please contact Scott Crist at (618) 253-7114.

About Shawnee National Forest

Administered by the USDA Forest Service, Shawnee National Forest is one of 155 national forests nationwide. As the only national forest in Illinois, the Shawnee offers numerous avenues for connecting with the natural world through its 280,000 acres of varied landscape. Whether your interests lie more in outdoor recreational activities, such as hiking or camping, or include learning about the unique natural and cultural heritage of southern Illinois, the fields, forests and streams of the Shawnee welcome you. To discover more about the Shawnee National Forest, visit Follow us on Twitter at and Facebook via

The U.S. Forest Service is an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a mission of sustaining the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The Forest Service’s Eastern Region includes 20 states in the Midwest and East, stretching from Maine, to Maryland, to Missouri, to Minnesota. There are 17 national forests and one national tallgrass prairie in the Eastern Region. For more information, visit

The U.S. Forest Service manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. Public lands the Forest Service manages contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone. Those same lands provide 20 percent of the nation’s clean water supply, a value estimated at $7.2 billion per year. The agency has either a direct or indirect role in stewardship of about 80 percent of the 850 million forested acres within the U.S., of which 100 million acres are urban forests where most Americans live. For more information, visit


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