By PATRICK HAULTER, guest columnist
Spring is a thing welcomed worldwide as our planet starts to break from the grasp of winter and life sprouts around us.
We are enamored by the distant calls of sandhill cranes as they ride the airwaves on the return flight home to their summer breeding grounds.
Others of us are excited by the beautiful flora as it breaks through the final layers of the earth’s crust to bask in the glow of the warming sun.
Ironically, at the same time of year, when the natural resource management season begins, a few of us think about setting fire to the woods.
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We call these fires “prescribed burns.”
Prescribed or controlled burns are invaluable. They promote species diversity, deplete fuel for uncontrolled wildfires and improve the habitat for flora and fauna.
Here in Brown County, we have a specific and unique reason for setting these controlled and well-calculated burns. It all has to do with regulating light penetration and promoting the growth and development of the harmonious natural forest communities of the Brown County hills.
These hills are made up of several types of natural communities: dry upland forests, mesic floodplain, dry-mesic upland forests and mesic upland forests. Because water availability and terrain vary from community to community, the flora and fauna found in each varies as well.
Here in Brown County State Park we focus our burn regimen on the mesic upland forests, which occur on north-facing slopes, in ravines and on level soil with a fairly high level of moisture availability. This community is rare and considered a significant concern in the state of Indiana.
Mesic upland forests are typically dominated by a dense overstory of oak and hickory trees and, in undisturbed areas, an understory of shade-tolerant species like sugar maple and American beech flourish.
Therein lies the problem. As forests age and develop, shade-tolerant species begin to dominate the understory and outcompete oak and hickory sapling regeneration, thus throwing off the natural order and ruining this mesic upland forest we have all come to know and love.
This is a very peculiar problem to have, as we are not trying to eradicate non-native invasive species, although these burns do aid in the battle against those troublesome aliens. Most Hoosiers would never consider a maple to be a troublesome species, other than the occasional helicopter annoyance as they drop their seemingly endless payload of sputtering seeds into every crack and crevasse within its borders. In the case of mesic upland forests, these shade-tolerant species must be kept at a healthy level.
Opening up the canopy and letting the sun penetrate to the forest floor is the best way to help with hickory and oak regeneration. Burning these areas not only lets much needed light in but puts valuable nutrients back into the soil, promoting desired saplings and giving us the proper diversity we are working so diligently to bring back to Brown County and Indiana as a whole.
The Yellowwood tree is yet another species of flora that we try to help with these prescribed fires. These state-threatened, imperiled trees seem to suffer from the same lack-of-light regeneration issues that have foiled young oaks and hickories. Although widespread and abundant in many other states, Yellowwood trees in Indiana occur naturally only in Brown County.
All of this information does, however, lead one to wonder, “How did oak and hickory regeneration happen before humans?” I’m sure many readers ponder this exact question often.
Surprisingly, the answer is quite simple: Fire.
Fire, whether sparked by lightning, volcanic activity or other sources, has been a natural factor in shaping our land and ecosystems since the first appearance of terrestrial vegetation some 420 million years ago.
As spring approaches and the natural world around us begins its amazing transformation from dismal winter hibernation into the colorful palette we’ve grown so fond of, don’t be alarmed if you happen to see smoke peeking out from behind the hills of Brown County State Park.
Chances are that it’s from a prescribed burn led by a group of individuals devoted to bringing back the natural world in the best way we know how.
Patrick Haulter is an interpretive naturalist at Brown County State Park.
The Brown County Native Woodlands Project will have its annual meeting from 7 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 28 in the lower level of the Brown County Public Library.
The Native Woodlands Project will review accomplishment for 2016 and plans for 2017, followed by light refreshments and a presentation by Andrew Reuter, central region ecologist with the Indiana Division of Nature Preserves.
Reuter will speak about the 75th anniversary of the Division of Nature Preserves, Brown County nature preserves, why they are important and how they are managed.