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Burning for Biodiversity in the Central Appalachians Fire Learning Network

Virginia USFWS staff starting a controlled burn at Mare Run; photo by Chuck Almarez.
Efforts by partners within the Central Appalachians Fire Learning Network (FLN) are restoring the historic role of fire to oak- and pine-dominated ecosystems throughout the region. Activities are benefiting a diversity of avian species dependent on forest structural and compositional heterogeneity.  In the Allegheny and Potomac Highlands of Virginia and West Virginia, FLN partners completed burns on over 13,700 acres of federal, state and private lands.  Partners, including The Nature Conservancy (TNC), USDA Forest Service, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (VA DCR), Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VA DGIF), Pennsylvania Game Commission, and others, also treated 832 acres of non-native invasive species in Highland Wildlife Management Area (VA DGIF), Cowbane Prairie Natural Area Preserve (VA DCR), South River Preserve (TNC), and the George Washington National Forest.  Many of these acres were treated in burn units or special biological areas where fire-adapted species are present. 

FLN partners in Pennsylvania completed burns on over 4,000 acres and signed new memorandums of understanding with Bethlehem Authority, Pennsylvania Power and Light, and Pennsylvania State University to facilitate future work on these new partner lands.  They also contracted with Arcadia University to initiate fire effects monitoring for their landscapes.  FLN partners in Virginia revised their Forest Structure and Composition monitoring protocol and data forms.  They also made significant progress on entering a backlog of previously collected data, with 55% of pre- and/or post-burn visits to the 333 total macroplots monitored by TNC and the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests now entered into a shared, integrated database. 

Overall, this year saw increased communication and coordination on burns and monitoring visits, with several burns having five or more agencies and organizations participating and partners travelling outside of their typical areas of responsibility to assist others across the region.  One avenue that led to increased communication and coordination was the Wildland Fire in the Appalachians Conference sponsored by the Association for Fire Ecology and the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists in Roanoke, Virginia last October.  Over 150 people throughout the Appalachians region attended, took part in over 30 sessions, and participated in an outstanding field trip to the Fenwick Mines and Mill Creek areas of the Jefferson National Forest.  Excellent attendance at the joint reception for the Central Appalachians and Southern Blue Ridge FLNs on the second night of the conference provided informal opportunities for partners to catch up with friends, network, and share good stories.  Oral presentations and posters are being compiled by the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station for conference proceedings. 

Also in 2013, Steve Simon of Ecological Modeling and Fire Ecology Inc. completed mapping of ecological zones for 5.6 million acres in southwestern Virginia.  Funded by the FLN, this project includes mapping of potential natural vegetation on the Jefferson National Forest and adjacent conservation lands.  When combined with the first approximation mapping of ecological zones on the George Washington National Forest, it completes work of over 10 million acres in the Ridge and Valley and Blue Ridge provinces of western Virginia and eastern West Virginia.  Maps have already helped determine current conditions in the George Washington National Forest revised management plan, stratify fire effects monitoring plots by ecological system types, prioritize burn units by their ecological benefits, and conduct an ecological departure analysis for the Lower Cowpasture Restoration Project.  Ecological zones are extremely valuable for determining restoration needs throughout the Southern Appalachians, where over 6 million acres are mapped. 

Finally, staff completed a third year of avian monitoring within the 18,000-acre Warm Springs Mountain Restoration Project, a collaborative initiative spanning lands owned by TNC and the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest.  This restoration project was the first large-scale, adaptive management project designed by FLN partners to begin restoration of the historical fire regime through controlled burns and to monitor the landscape-scale responses of associated bird and plant communities.  Since 2008, FLN partners have conducted controlled burns on four units totaling nearly 6,000 acres within the project area; partners burned an additional 880 acres by managed wildfire.  Using standard point count methodologies and a time of detection protocol, TNC staff and volunteers counted a higher number of individuals than in previous years, with nearly 950 individuals detected this spring.  Since initiated in 2011, total counts averaged 870 individual birds and 50 species.  Species diversity increased across the landscape from 2011 to 2013 and was higher on burned plots. Preliminary abundance estimates for several focal species fluctuate by species and across years.  However, on plots burned during the past five years, preliminary increases in abundance of Ovenbird, American Redstart, Eastern Towhee and Pine Warbler are evident.  Relationships between vegetative changes in the landscape and avian community response are being explored in subsequent analyses.