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January 15, 2009

Ecological burn to help restore habitat for rare plant species

A pine community that is becoming scarce in the southern Appalachians and a rare wildflower will benefit from a prescribed fire that is planned for early 2009 at an Oconee County heritage preserve.
About 323 acres of the 501-acre Buzzard Roost Heritage Preserve, three miles west of Walhalla, will be burned in early 2009 in a cooperative prescribed burn that will include the efforts of the S.C.

Department of Natural Resources (DNR); S.C. Forestry Commission and U.S. Forest Service. Almost 216 acres of land in Sumter National Forest, next to the preserve, are also scheduled for a prescribed burn.
In the past, neighbors around the burn area have been very cooperative during the burn, according to Mary Bunch, DNR wildlife biologist based in Clemson and manager of the Buzzard Roost preserve. Weather conditions will be chosen so that smoke from the fire will disperse quickly and not present a serious problem in the area. "We appreciate the neighbors’ patience," Bunch said.

The purpose of the burn is to improve habitat for smooth coneflower, a federally endangered member of the Aster family, and to maintain Table Mountain pine, according to Bunch. Smooth coneflower benefits from disturbances such as fire, and Table Mountain pine, a species in decline partly due to the lack of fire, needs the heat from fires to open its cones and to clear the ground below of litter, preparing it as a seed bed. Control of hardwood trees by prescribed fire benefits both smooth coneflower and Table Mountain pine.

"Through the centuries, native plants, animals and habitats have adapted to the presence of recurring fire," Bunch said. "Many species and ecosystems are now rare because of fire suppression, but they need periodic fire to ensure their survival."

A good example of that is the smooth coneflower, which grows on Buzzard Roost Heritage Preserve and in only 23 locations in the Southeast. Historically, smooth coneflower probably grew in prairie-like habitats maintained by lightning fires or those set by Native Americans, Bunch said. Without fire to keep the forest floor clear, other plant species crowd or shade out smooth coneflower.
Scientists and land managers are increasingly aware of the importance of fire for maintaining a healthy forest ecosystem. Many of the state’s 84,000 acres in heritage preserves benefit from fire, and the DNR plans to burn several thousand acres on heritage preserves in the first half of 2009.

The South Carolina Prescribed Fire Council is promoting public understanding about the benefits and importance of prescribed fire. The Prescribed Fire Council is composed of representatives from various conservation agencies and institutions. More information on the DNR’s Heritage Trust Program.

DNR protects and manages South Carolina’s natural resources by making wise and balanced decisions for the benefit of the state’s natural resources and its people.

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