Joint DNR, Forest Service burns benefit rare species
Plants, animals reestablished in wooded areas across Georgia
SOCIAL CIRCLE — Recent prescribed fire collaborations between the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the U. S. Forest Service will help restore rare species such as the smooth purple coneflower and Bachman’s sparrow in Georgia.
Approximately 4,000 acres were burned during a threeday period in mid- March in habitats ranging from the upper Piedmont to the Blue Ridge ecoregions.
The burns were designed to improve habitat for several rare species; restore oak, shortleaf pine and pitch pine woodlands; and reduce fuels that could feed wildfires.
“ These burns represent an excellent example of quality ecological work and interagency coordination between the DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section and the U. S. Forest Service,” said Mincy Moffett, a DNR wildlife biologist and botanist who helped with the burns.
Species such as the federally endangered smooth purple coneflower ( Echinacea laevigata) historically relied on wildfire, windthrow or trees uprooted by wind, ice storms, and large herbivores to maintain the conditions required for survival.
Because of the plant’s need for full sunlight to bloom and make fruits, fires are necessary to prevent encroachment of habitat by shade- producing woody shrubs and trees.
In the past, smooth purple coneflowers were found in naturally occurring forest openings and thinly canopied woodlands, areas that have been largely destroyed through agricultural clearing, residential and industrial development and fire suppression.
Smooth purple coneflower populations exist on only 25 sites in two counties in Northeastern Georgia — Habersham and Stephens. Because of the coneflower’s need for sun, most remnant populations are found on the edges of roads where the canopy has been opened artificially.
Approximately 115 acres near Toccoa in Stephens County were included in the recent burns as part of an ongoing Coneflower Restoration Project.
Prescribed fire was especially important at this site because a tornado swept through in 2003. The resulting debris and thick re- sprouting shrubs were starting to shade out coneflowers.
Approximately 80 percent of the remaining coneflower sites occur on Forest Service land.
The Forest Service and the DNR are working together to aid in the species’ recovery as required by the Endangered Species Act.
DNR and Forest Service officials consider the burns a success.
“ The burns went very well,” said Tom Anderson, forest fire management officer for the Chattahoochee- Oconee National Forest and a 38year Forest Service veteran. “ Resources from the DNR are a definite asset. Without their assistance these burns would have been hard to successfully complete.
“ We will definitely be working together more in the future.”
The Forest Service has a history of collaborating with the DNR’s Game Management Section for prescribed burns on wildlife management areas within the national forest. But the March burns represent the first time the Forest Service has worked with the Nongame Conservation Section, another part of the DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division.
Having a common goal of species recovery is a key aspect of the partnership. The Forest Service burns approximately 16,000 acres every year in Oconee National Forest in a plan designed to aid the recovery of the red- cockaded woodpecker, another federally listed endangered species.
“ We’re all in this together,” Anderson said.
Another partner and supporter in prescribed fire is the Georgia Forestry Commission, the agency in Georgia responsible for outdoor fire activity. The commission works closely with the Forest Service and the DNR to conduct burns.
“ It’s one of the best and most economical ways to manage our forest lands and ecosystems and minimize the risk of damaging wildfire,” said Neal Edmondson, prescribed fire program manager for the Georgia Forestry
Winged wonder: Commission. “ It is a safe way to apply a natural process that in turn will benefit our common goal of habitat restoration and species recovery.”
Buying a wildlife license plate or making a donation via the “ Give Wildlife a Chance” State Income Tax Checkoff supports the work done by seasonal burn crews in Georgia, including projects like coneflower restoration.
The tax checkoff and sales of bald eagle and hummingbird tags provide vital funding for the Nongame Conservation Section. Projects vary from monitoring sea turtles to promoting awareness of prescribed fires as a tool for promoting healthy forests.
Wildlife license plates are available for $ 25 at all county tag offices. Tags also can be bought by checking the wildlife license plate box on mail- in registration forms. Visit http:// mvd. dor. ga. gov/ tags for online renewals.
The checkoff is another easy way to support nongame conservation. Simply fill in a dollar amount on line 26 of the long tax form ( Form 500) or line 10 of the short form ( Form 500EZ).
The color purple:
A biologist gently holds a Bachman’s sparrow, which prescribed burns are helping to restore in Georgia.
The smooth purple coneflower is one of the plant species returning to Georgia in greater numbers due to Georgia DNR and Forest Service prescribed burns.