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Smokies National Park conducts 530-acre prescribed burn

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park conducted a prescribed burn on a 530-acre tract of forest in the Cataloochee Valley area last weekend.

 

The burn was conducted to help restore oak and pine woodlands, and is expected to create additional forage and habitat for the Park’s experimental elk population.

The central purpose of the park’s prescribed-fire program for the interior region of the Smokies is to replicate, as closely as possible, the role that fires historically played in shaping and maintaining the Park’s diverse ecosystem. In this case, the Park’s goal is to perpetuate and maintain the xeric oak forest community.

The xeric forest type is made up of largely fire-tolerant species including black, scarlet, and chestnut oaks and various hickory species. The restored xeric forest will have numerous canopy openings that will allow sunlight to reach the forest floor, supporting a variety of grasses and herbaceous vegetation and improving habitat for wildlife. This area was originally burned in April 2004. The burn last weekend was the second in a long-term plan calling for several treatments to restore the xeric oak forest community to a more healthy condition.

Until the mid-‘90’s, all fires within the Park had been vigorously suppressed for almost 70 years. One consequence of that long-term fire suppression was that areas that historically were xeric oak were being taken over by maple and other species which out -compete the oaks, but are much less fire-resistant. The new forest has a closed canopy that allows little light to the forest floor, resulting in a decline of biological diversity. The planned burn is designed to reduce the density of fire-intolerant species and to promote the regeneration of the xeric oak species.

The area that was burned borders the open meadows of Cataloochee at the western end of the Valley. The burn area is contained by natural boundaries including the grassy meadow, two wet drainages, an old road, and by a short stretch of established fire control line. As a precaution, approximately 25 park firefighters and 2 engines were assigned to make sure the fire stays within its planned boundaries.

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