- − This article by Marne Lacouture first appeared in WildfloraRI, Spring 2020
The pitch pine forest has been an important but declining Rhode Island ecosystem since the days when fire maintained it. Pitch pine (Pinus rigida) is a fire-tolerant tree that thrives on nutrient-poor, dry soil often referred to as a pine barren. Its needles are in bundles of three, and its bark is thick and protective, able to sprout new growth after a fire. It can hold its cones for a long time, even years. Although some of the cones have a resinous coating that fire must melt to release the seeds, not all require fire. The dry, non-resinous cones release seeds that germinate in the warmth of the sun if not consumed by wildlife. Many birds and small mammals, including eastern towhees and red squirrels, eat them.
The pitch pine community, which includes scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia), black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), common lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), hillside blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum) and other members of the heath (Ericaceae) family, is important for biodiversity. It provides habitat for wildlife, including tiger beetles, whip-poor-will, woodcock, New England cottontail, and box turtle. Many small birds including warblers glean insects from under the bark and inside the cones. Sundial lupine (Lupinus perennis), rare in Rhode Island, and yellow wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria), both of which grow in these dry sandy conditions, are the only hosts for the larvae of the frosted elfin butterfly, which is listed as state-threatened.
Pine barrens in Rhode Island are found along the southern coast at Ninigret Wildlife Refuge in Charlestown; inland in Coventry, Exeter, and West Greenwich; and on Prudence Island at the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Over the years shade-tolerant species such as white pine, oak, and maple have crowded out pitch pines; their needles and leaves create closed canopies in the forests and thick damp litter on the ground. Tanner Steeves, a Department of Environmental Management (DEM) wildlife biologist, used the term “overstocked forest” to describe this.
Most Rhode Island forests are 75 to 100 years old, he said—not young and not old. Restoring pitch pine barrens will add diversity.
In 2005 Rhode Island wrote its first Wildlife Action Plan, which allows the state to apply for federal grants. Steeves said that DEM has worked with the Natural History Survey and other environmental organizations to write the original plan and revise it in 2015.
Native Americans used fire to keep woodlands open for hunting and berry production. Early colonists burned large areas of forest to clear land for agriculture. More recently a friend recalled his grandmother burning the family cemetery plot each year. Now it has become risky to use fire as a land- maintenance tool, since development has encroached on much of our forestland. Together fire suppression and population growth have caused loss of pitch pine habitat. There were around 30,000 acres of pine barrens in Rhode Island before European settlement, but today only around 6,000 acres remain.
Forest fires are relatively rare in the East, where rainfall is plentiful, while drier conditions in the West have caused a build-up of debris resulting in raging fires that have destroyed houses and caused loss of life. Wildfires could also occur in the East during an extended drought, since over the years without fires, duff has built up on the forest floors. Recent winters that lacked snow cover, climate change with its warmer temperatures and sometimes violent storms, and insect damage that has killed large areas of trees may also be contributing factors.
In the spring of 2018 after years without fire, Nicholas Farm, a DEM property in Coventry, was the site of a prescribed burn on 25 acres over two non-consecutive days. The goal was to restore the overgrown pitch pine barren and also the adjacent meadow to encourage native warm-season grasses and pollinator-friendly wildflowers. A prescribed burn is sometimes called a controlled burn, but fire experts agree that this is misleading. A prescribed burn, the preferred term, is carried out according to an intricate plan written well ahead of the burn.
Northeast Forest and Fire Management, LLC (NE-FFM), headquartered in Sandwich, Massachusetts, works with state, federal and private landowners, and environmental organizations to restore habitat. It worked with DEM to write the plan for the Nicholas Farm burn, taking into consideration goals for restoration of the environment; specific weather conditions such as temperature, humidity, and wind direction and speed; the existence of rare species; and the safety of the community. The boundaries that form the burn unit were configured with plans for fire breaks, and the local fire chief signed off on the plan. About two years earlier, a contractor had removed the tall white pines, oaks, and maples using an excavator with a mulching head, or masticator. The wood was left on the ground to dry until spring of 2018 when conditions were right for the burn.
A prescribed burn is a team effort. The one at Nicholas Farm included expert firefighters and others from DEM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, local Coventry firefighters, and employees from NE-FFM. Prescribed burns are kept low to the ground since a fire in the treetops could be disastrous. On the first day of the Nicholas Farm burn, the operation shut down early after humidity dropped and temperature rose, creating unsafe conditions. The second day went according to plan, and the burn was successful.
It is a sunny cold afternoon in mid-February of this year. Olney Knight, Forest Fire Program Coordinator with DEM stationed at the agency’s Arcadia Forestry Headquarters, leads my husband and me through the burned area at Nicholas Farm. Knight grew up in eastern Connecticut, volunteering as a junior member with local fire companies. He knows about fires, in particular the local wildfires that happened long before he was born. He tells fire stories like an old timer, belying his 33 years. At home in the woods, he strides easily through the thick understory of scrub oak and lowbush blueberry that benefited from an initial release of nutrients back to the soil. We follow along, struck by the sight of new growth from the trunks of the pitch pine that are black a foot or two up from the understory. The open canopy, which allows light to filter in, is stunning. The Southern pine beetle, a destructive pest found in Rhode Island, will not move from tree to tree as easily now, Knight explains, and its pheromones may not be as powerful in the airy canopy. Warm season grasses, mostly little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and switch panicgrass (Panicum virgatum), have grown in the fire-blackened meadow and glow in the winter light. Common milkweed [Asclepias syriaca] came in last summer, Knight says with satisfaction.
For the restored pitch pine barren at Nicholas Farm to remain viable, future burns will be needed. After several longtime DEM foresters with fire knowledge and experience retired, Knight has relied on help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forestry Service. He hopes to fill an open position at DEM, but hiring is stalled for now. If spring conditions cooperate this year, there may be a couple more prescribed burns on state land, but first plans must be written and funding sourced. Meanwhile Knight’s attitude is philosophical as he muses aloud, “I spend a lot of time wondering what these forests want to be.”
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Gucker, Corey L. 2007. Pinus rigida. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/ tree/pinrig/all.html [ 2020, March 4 ].
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