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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


What's the Best Way to Burn (or Not) Certain Forests Around the Great Lakes? New Program Has Science-based Answers

May 21, 2012

WOOSTER, Ohio -- Jack pines, which are common in parts of the northern Great Lakes, need fire to thrive.

So does the rare and endangered Kirtland’s warbler, which nests only in burned or otherwise disturbed young jack pine stands in a handful of locations in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario -- and nowhere else on Earth.

Both are part of the same “fire-dependent ecosystem,” a type of biological community that needs occasional fires in order to persist.

And both and more should benefit from a new federal project based at Ohio State University in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station.

The Lake States Fire Science Consortium, a knowledge exchange network, has been started to connect scientists who study fire-dependent forest ecosystems and how to manage them with the managers who do the managing. The program’s geographic focus, the Great Lakes region, includes parts of New York, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota and Pennsylvania and parts of Ontario and Manitoba in Canada.

(Video (2:03): Greg Corace, a forester at Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, explains using "prescribed" fire in the refuge and cooperative research with Ohio State.)

The idea is “to ensure that the best available science is actually available to managers,” said Charles Goebel, the consortium’s program director and a forest ecologist with Ohio State.

It’s also “an effort to develop and enhance collaborative ties between managers and scientists, and to identify and respond to any knowledge gaps,” said Goebel, who works at the university’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in northeast Ohio.

'Best Available Science' for Decisions

Land managers sometimes use fire -- in the form of relatively cool, carefully controlled “prescribed” fires -- to improve wildlife habitat, to conserve or restore native plants, or to burn off brush and built-up fuels to limit wildfires.

But sometimes other methods, such as thinning or clearcutting a forest, can achieve a similar end.

The method a manager chooses, prescribed fire or something else, depends on a number of factors, such as the type of ecosystem involved, the goal of the treatment, and the distance from towns, homes and cabins.

“Implicit in the consortium is that we’re neutral,” said Goebel, an associate professor in the School of Environment and Natural Resources. “Our goal is not to promote the use of fire one way or the other. Our goal is to make sure, if you’re a land manager interested in using fire, that you can find the information you need to make a decision with the best available science.”

“Say a manager comes to us and says, ‘I’m working in a fire-dependent system in northern Minnesota, and I can’t use fire. What are my options?’ We want to be in a position to say, ‘OK, this is the best available information we have for the system you’re in, and these are the fire-surrogate practices that you can use to achieve a particular management objective on your land.’”

The consortium’s website features, for example, news and updates about fire science in the region, a list of coming and archived continuing education Web-based seminars, a schedule of tours and workshops, and the latest national wildfire risk forecast (pdf).

There’s an archived “Science Library”; current and past issues of the consortium’s newsletter; details on past studies with such titles as “Characterizing Historic and Contemporary Fire Regimes in the Lake States” and “Effects of Blowdown, Salvage Logging and Wildfire on Regeneration and Fuel Characteristics in Minnesota’s Forests”; and a link for users to “Submit a research need.” 

Forum for Knowledge, Discussion

The program provides better access to more information and “a forum for researchers and managers to discuss the needs and outcomes of research and its application,” said Greg Corace, a member of the consortium’s administrative committee and a forester at Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“As a government agency, we’re required to use the best available science in our land management, even while admitting that land management is an art, guided by science,” Corace said. “The consortium aids in communicating what’s known, what’s not known, and what should be a priority for future research.”

“We’re sitting at the intersection between scientists and managers,” Goebel added. “We’re finding out from the managers what they need, and we’re trying to respond to that the best that we can” through new and targeted studies.

Participants in the consortium include Ohio State and OARDC; local, state and federal agencies, including the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs; and the nonprofit Nature Conservancy.

Working with Goebel is Robert Ziel, the consortium’s program manager based in Marquette, Mich., who previously served for 31 years as a fire management specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Species Adapted to Fire

The species in fire-dependent ecosystems, which include plants, animals and more, are adapted to living with fire as a regular disturbance. That is, not only do they survive occasional fires, they actually do better. They can germinate and reproduce, show greater diversity, and typically form a more stable community because of them.

Examples of fire-dependent ecosystems around the Great Lakes include oak savannas in the central and southern parts of the region, such as northwest Ohio, and red pine and jack pine forests in the north, including the burned-over or clearcut jack pine stands that are essential to the Kirtland’s warbler.

In fact, the one-time nearly extinct yellow, black and blue-gray songbird is so identified with fire-dependent ecosystems that it’s featured in the consortium’s logo.

Corace, who manages some of the nesting areas of the Kirtland’s warbler as part of his duties, said, “Seney National Wildlife Refuge functions as a de facto land management/research demonstration area, and the Applied Sciences Program at Seney attempts to integrate applied research, land management and tertiary education for the conservation and restoration of native ecosystems.”

Because of this, “One of the aspects of the consortium that has benefitted us is to advertise our mission and work to potential cooperators,” he said. “The consortium provides outlets in the form of newsletters, websites and webinars so that our work can be presented to a wider audience.”

Part of a National Network

The Lake States program is part of a wider national network of 14 regional consortia coordinated by the federal, multiagency Joint Fire Science Program, which, according to its website, “funds scientific research on wildland fires and distributes results to help policy makers, fire managers and practitioners make sound decisions.”

“The (national program’s) mission is to make sure researchers are developing fire science than can be used on the ground to affect the management of fire-dependent ecosystems, and what we’re trying to do is help them in that effort,” Goebel said. “Eventually the entire country will pretty much be covered by these regional consortia.”

The regional programs, he said, aim to provide information that is unique, specific and best-suited to their particular geography.

Adjoining efforts include the Oak Woodlands and Forests Fire Consortium stretching southwest from the Lake States region, the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists to the southeast, and the Tallgrass Prairie and Oak Savanna Fire Science Consortium to the west and northwest.

The Lake States consortium’s website is at Learn more about the Joint Fire Science Program at

OARDC is the research arm of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. The center works not just on food and farming but also, for example, on biofuels, bioproducts, health, nutrition, sustainability and the environment.

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Kurt Knebusch
Charles Goebel, Greg Corace