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Locating potential historical fire-maintained grasslands of the eastern United States based on topography and wind speed


Reed F. Noss



Publication type:

Scientific Journal (JRNL)

Primary Station(s):

Rocky Mountain Research Station


Ecosphere. 13: e4098.


Historically, grasslands with limited tree presence were embedded in a matrix of predominantly open oak and pine forests in the eastern United States. These open ecosystems mostly have been lost to other land uses, particularly agriculture, and also to closed forests under fire exclusion because frequent surface fire prevents tree encroachment. We located the potential extent of eastern fire-maintained grasslands by applying the random forests and C5.0 classifiers to determine the relationship between mapped areas of historical grasslands and topography and wind speed, which are proxies for surface fire frequency. A generalized ruleset was that fire-maintained grasslands occurred at roughness values of less than 95, or flatter sites, and wind speeds ≥ 3.4 m s-1, which created large fire compartments. Potential grasslands covered 27 million ha, or 14% of the 200 million ha of the eastern United States, although these fire-maintained locations also may have been savannas or open woodlands historically. Currently, potential grassland locations are 40% crops, 25% pasture, 18% forests, and 13% developed land, with about 1.5% each of herbaceous upland vegetation, herbaceous wetlands, and shrublands. According to historical accounts, fire-maintained grasslands generally transitioned to dense young tree growth within a 20-year interval after fire exclusion; in Kentucky, the transition transpired during the periods 1790-1810 or 1810-1830, but dates vary with Euro-American settlement time. Finding the forgotten grasslands of the eastern United States, with this mechanistic approach to estimate fire disturbance, is an important first step for recovering and managing eastern grassland biodiversity.


Hanberry, Brice B.; Noss, Reed F. 2022. Locating potential historical fire-maintained grasslands of the eastern United States based on topography and wind speed. Ecosphere. 13: e4098.


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