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A primary goal of the National Park Service is to preserve native plants and animals in the Great Smoky Mountains, as well as the natural processes which perpetuate them. Park managers have learned that fire is one of the natural processes which some plants and animals depend on. For most of the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the National Park Service has suppressed all forest fires within park boundaries. However, extensive research by scientists in the southern Appalachians and elsewhere has gradually proven the importance of fire in maintaining healthy ecosystems.
In accordance with its goal of preserving natural conditions, the National Park Service has responded to this new information by modifying its fire management policy to include the use of wildland fires and prescribed fires as components of its resource management program. Arson fires will continue to be fought, as will all other fires that threaten human life or valuable property. Safety and protection of property remain the top priorities of firefighting staff in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Fire in the Great Smoky Mountains
Records show that an average of two lightning-ignited forest fires occur in Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year, usually in May or June. Forest fires are most common at the low and mid-elevations, especially where pine and oak forests predominate.
Prior to European settlement, occasional fires were an integral part of most Appalachian ecosystems and native plants and animals had adapted to their occurrence. Forests then were a more varied blend of old and young trees and some forests were more open in character. Fire recycled the nutrients of dead wood for use by growing plants and conditioned the forest floor for the regeneration of species that are dependent on disturbance. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, at least a dozen species of native plants and animals that benefit from fire have been identified.
Table Mountain pine is a prime example of a species that benefits from fire. During high intensity burns, the sealed cones of Table Mountain pine open, allowing dispersion of seeds over fire-cleared ground. Many stands of Table Mountain pine in the park are failing to regenerate due to past fire control practices. The decline is of special concern to biologists because the species’ range is confined to the southern and central Appalachian Mountains.
The federally-endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker is another fire-dependent species native to the park. It nests only in mature pine trees that are free of surrounding underbrush. Researchers believe the Red-cockaded colonies in the west end of the park were abandoned when the sites became too brushy. Periodic fires would control the brush which may provide predators with access to woodpecker nests.
Even whole ecosystems need fire to maintain their natural diversity of plants and animals. Many pine-oak and oak forests in the park appear to have very poor reproductive success without occasional fire. Little or no oak regeneration has occurred at some sites since total fire suppression was initiated in the 1930s. Oaks provide acorns in the fall which are an important food source for black bear, white-tailed deer, Wild Turkey, and other wildlife.
Partner Website: http://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/nature/wildlandfire.htm