Saturday, November 14, 2015

Prescribed Burn Scheduled for West Penn Township on Monday

The Pennsylvania Game Commission has scheduled a "prescribed burn" for West Penn Township on Monday, November 16, 2015.

The Baer Rocks Burn, which it is being referred to as, covers State Game Land 217, totaling 7,647 acres, is located in northern Lehigh, southern Carbon and southern Schuylkill counties. It contains a wide variety of habitat types within its borders and is home to a multitude of different wildlife species. Since over 97% of this State Game Land is forested and 95% of that area consists of mixed oak forests, the use of a prescribed burn is a very appropriate management tool.

The area to be treated with a prescribed burn totals 190 acres. It contains a mature oak stand that is dominated by chestnut oak. Forest fires were a common occurrence on this ridge in the early 1900's, which led to the establishment of this oak stand. The lack of fire over the past 60 years has led to an open, almost barren understory.

The goal of this prescribed burn is to recreate the conditions that led to the establishment of this aging oak forest. Currently there is a large amount of sassafras, black gum and red maple trees growing under the oak canopy. These small trees are casting dense shade on the forest floor. A prescribed burn has the potential to remove a large number of these trees.

By removing some of the less desirable species, the prescribed burn not only reduces competition for the oaks, but it will also allow more sunlight to hit the forest floor. Sunlight is necessary for the acorns to sprout. Oak trees are extremely valuable to wildlife, so the failure of these acorns to germinate is a problem. A thick layer of accumulated leaves has also created an additional barrier on the forest floor, making it difficult for the acorn roots to become established in the soil. A fire will burn and remove much of this leaf layer.

This is an aging oak stand that will undoubtedly have to deal with the loss of large oak trees in the coming years. It is vital that there are younger oak trees in the understory to replace these aging oaks. If oak seedlings are not available, this stand will eventually be replaced by red maple, birch, sassafras and black gum. The only effective way to maintain this invaluable oak component is with the use of a prescribed burn.

Although the area may look a little different for a short time, the long and short-term effects will definitely benefit wildlife, the forest habitat and the users of State Game Lands. The blackened soil of the burn will remain in that condition for a short time, but will come alive with plants germinating from seeds exposed by the fire. Oak seedlings will begin to sprout very soon after a prescribed burn. Seeds produced from the overstory trees will germinate. Recent studies after State Game Lands fires also show reduction in ticks within the burned area. A prescribed burn of this intensity will not impact most of the over story trees. Most of the changes to the forest habitat will take place on the forest floor. Some species (red maple, black birch and tulip poplar) will be reduced from the site for a number of years. Within the following growing season, the site should be green and teeming with new plants – many of them rare plants that depend on fire to germinate and grow!

Prescribed burns will not be conducted after November 20th, to not interfere with upcoming hunting season.