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CASH Courier > 2005 Fall Issue

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The C.A.S.H. Courier

ARTICLE from the Fall 2006 Issue

FIRE MANAGEMENT: AN INCREASINGLY DESTRUCTIVE PRACTICE

A LACK OF EMPATHY WITH NATURE

Fire proponents claim that controlled burning recycles nutrients. But there is evidence that even ground fires may destroy micro-organisms in the upper layer of soil that are essential for healthy plant growth. These may include diminished quantities of important nitrogen-fixing and ammonia-oxidizing bacteria. (2) Even a single controlled brush fire can result in a substantial decline in the important upper layer of humus. (3) Moreover, in most types of ecosystems, regular fires cause a general depletion of soil quality. (4) The results are readily observable to any experienced ecologist throughout much of the Pine Bush and much of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Because of poor soil, made even less productive as a result of fires, these areas are characterized by inferior, low-grade plant life. Since plant-eating animals are only as healthy as the quality of their food supply, fire adversely affects both plant and animal life.

Since much burning is done in the Spring, there are many toads, salamanders, and ground-dwelling insects that are killed, along with some mice, moles, shrews, and even chipmunks if they are in shallow burrows. Garter snakes often sun themselves in fields from early Spring through early Autumn. If fields are burned they will have to move at top speed and then some! The smoke-producing fire may also drive away nesting birds. Those that return to their territories will find a radically altered environment. (5) Some berry producing woody plants are killed by fire, and a charred ground surface is far from an ideal habitat for any animal. Anne Muller, the editor and publisher of Wildlife Watch Binocular, once found a half-dead turtle that had had its shell burned as a result of a deliberately-set fire in a field. Many fire proponents consider wildlife casualties to be justifiable collateral damage. (6)

As for the chestnut oaks, black oaks, white oaks, red oaks, and pin oaks in the Shawangunks that fire proponents say they want to preserve, there are seldom monocultures or duo-cultures in Nature. Where these do exist, they are usually where certain species of trees have been planted by people (as in the case of the Norway spruce monocultures in some locations). However, these are relatively small areas. Where these monocultures do exist, imported tree diseases can wipe them out within several years.

Natural succession is a very slow process. Over many years some species of trees and other plants will decline, along with some animal species. But, as in the case of fields that become wooded, other types of trees, plants, and animals will slowly move in.

Barring infrequent blow-downs caused by unusually severe weather conditions, a climax ecosystem will usually remain intact for decades (Severe hurricanes in southeastern New York State have usually occurred once every 40-50 years. Serious windstorms occur once every two to three decades. Severe tornadoes are very rare. Occasionally, there are minor earth tremors but there is no record of a destructive earthquake in recent years.)

Fire proponents at Mohonk Preserve fail to explain how controlled burning will aid oak regeneration by opening the forest canopy without killing some of the trees that they claim they want to save. Most species of trees that are under extreme stress and in danger of dying usually produce copious amounts of seeds. Professional foresters have known this for decades. If burning were done in areas adjacent to oak forests, and characterized by other primary species of trees - on the theory that oak seedlings might germinate there - then these other species of trees would be in danger of damage or demise; and it is quite possible that this is the intent of fire managers!

Finally, there is the argument that a buildup of flammable materials on the forest floor could result in a serious wildfire that would endanger homes and property. In my opinion this is a canard that is intended to gain public support for controlled burning. Naturally there are some people who are careless with fire. There are also mentally disturbed incendiaries. But why should professed ecologists compete with these people? Fire suppression is the reason we have local fire departments. Fire management at Mohonk Preserve is little more than an experiment. Some of the preserve’s administrators privately admit that they are uncertain about some of the potential long-term effects of controlled burns on these lands. It is obvious to me that both the short-term and long-term effects will be detrimental to the normal processes of Nature.

Go on to THE REAL REASONS FOR FIRE MANAGEMENT

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