Fire is both an essential ecological process and a critical land management tool in the Southeast. The National Park Service uses prescribed fire extensively both to preserve fire-dependent ecosystems and to prevent uncontrollable conflagrations. For example, just two of the region’s units, Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park, treat more acres with prescribed fire annually than most NPS regions. Everglades National Park, in fact, pioneered prescribed fire in the National Park Service, conducting their first prescribed burn in 1958.
Percentage of Total NPS Prescribed Fire Acres Treated in the Southeast Region
Source: NPS Fuels Report Card, 2003–2010
- FY 2006 39%
- FY 2007 66%
- FY 2008 50%
- FY 2009 60%
- FY 2010 59%
The Southeast Region of the National Park Service preserves and restores both natural and historic landscapes in several fire-adapted or fire-dependent ecosystems.
Restoring the Longleaf Forest of the Coastal Plains
From Virginia to Texas, the longleaf pine forest once dominated the Southeastern coastal lowlands. Travelers such as botanist William Bartram, who collected plant samples throughout the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida from 1773 to 1777, described “a vast forest of the most stately Pine trees that can be imagined, planted by nature, at a moderate distance, on a level, grassy plain, enameled with a variety of flowering shrubs.” The understory of the longleaf forest is an extraordinarily diverse grass savanna. Up to 35 different plant species may be found in a single square meter of this savanna, including several carnivorous pitcher plants.
The longleaf pine forest evolved in an environment of frequent natural fire. Where the warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean meets the continental air mass over North America, especially in the spring and summer, thunderstorms proliferate. Florida experiences more lightning strikes annually than any other part of the continent. As a result, the natural fire return inte“rval for the longleaf forest ranges from one to eight years. Several adaptations allowed the longleaf pine to thrive in this fire environment, including thick bark, autumn germination, and a juvenile “grass stage” capable of surviving frequent fires. With these adaptations, longleaf outcompeted other tree species, especially hardwoods, that cannot tolerate fire but in its absence would shade out the longleaf.
Today the longleaf forest occupies only about 2% of its historic range. Various plant and animal species native to the longleaf forest, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, gopher tortoise, and indigo snake are endangered because their habitat has almost disappeared.
Learn more about how the National Park Service uses fire to restore and preserve the longleaf forest in your parks.
- Natchez Trace Parkway (Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee)
- Gulf Islands National Seashore (Florida)
- Horseshoe Bend National Military Park (Alabama)
Preserving the South Florida Sawgrass Prairies and Pinelands
At the southern tip of Florida, an enormous, shallow river flows slowly from Lake Okechobee to Florida Bay. Author and naturalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas called it “the river of grass.” This freshwater river waters the unique ecosystem known as the Everglades. Topograhical variations of mere inches in the underlying limestone create enormous differences in the vegetation above the water. Much of the low, flat “slough,” which fills with water each summer, is covered with sawgrass, a species so flammable that it can burn even standing in water. Small rises create islands dry enough to support tropical hardwood trees. These islands of jungle are called “hammocks.” Larger limestone ridges and shelves create an entirely different landscape called the pine rocklands. On this dry, rocky soil, widely spaced slash pines make up an overstory above low, flammable shrubs.
Pine rocklands and the sawgrass prairie both evolved in the lightning capital of North America. The natural fire return interval in this volatile vegetation is one to five years. Most lightning-started fires die out when they reach the edge of the hammocks because the tropical hardwoods are so much less flammable. However, when years of fire suppression have increased fuel loads, hotter fires can burn into the hammocks and kill the hardwoods. Fire can also be carried into the hammocks by invasive species such as Old World climbing fern. Brazilian pepper and melaleuca are two other invasive species that threaten the native ecology of the Everglades.
To the north and west of Everglades National Park, shallow depressions in the underlying limestone create habitat for cypress trees. Circular depressions result in the formation of cypress “domes,” while elongated drainage channels create “strands.” Cypress domes and strands, like hardwood hammocks, are more fire-resistant than the prairie, except during prolonged droughts.
Two National Park Service units, Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park, preserve this unique ecosystem.
Restoring Historic Fire Return Intervals in Oak-Pine Forests (Carolina Piedmont)
In the Carolinas, the National Park Service preserves the sites of several major Revolutionary War battles, including Cowpens and Kings Mountain, South Carolina. Contemporary accounts of the battles describe a forest in which cavalry could ride two or three abreast between the trees. Although some natural lightning fires occur on the higher, drier ridges, such an open understory among the pine-oak forests of the South Carolina piedmont could only have been maintained by burning.
Various native plant and animal species also thrive with a more open understory. With less frequent burning, the native pines and oaks are shaded out by other hardwoods and shrubs such as red maple, mountain laurel and rhododendron.