Browse by Subject
Contact Information

Northern Research Station
One Gifford Pinchot Drive
Madison, WI 53726
(608) 231-9318
(608) 231-9544 TTY/TDD

Sustaining Forests

The Role of Fire in Restoration of Woodlands and Savannas

Research Issue

[photo:] Here is a restored oak savanna that was accomplished by timber harvesting and repeated applications of prescribed. The continued use of fire is necessary to maintain the savanna. Woodland and savanna communities are characterized by open understories and dense ground flora comprised of forbs, grasses, and sedges. They once were common in the western Central Hardwood Region and prairie-forest transition zone where low-intensity fires occurred frequently. In the absence of fire, many of the oak (Quercus spp.) woodland ecosystems throughout much of the Midwest have succeeded to compositions and structures resembling those of mature oak forests, possibly reducing the biodiversity, wildlife habitat, and ecosystem services provided by these ecosystems. The current prescriptions for restoration of savannas and woodlands from these stands calls for a significant reduction in the number of small diameter trees to allow sunlight to the understory which can also lead to the release of a number of invasive grasses, forbs, and woody species.   Little information is available on how recently introduced invasive species respond to prescribed burns at different times of the year or fire frequency.  Prescribed fire may be equally important in suppressing in introduced species when restoring native vegetation on old field sites as part of a savanna restoration project.

Our Research

Our research is focused on understanding the role of fire in sustaining woodland and savanna composition and structure and addresses the following themes:

  • Quantifying the effects of prescribed fire on tree seedling mortality or survival and recruitment
  • Examining the influence on forest composition and management history on fuel loading and coarse woody debris
  • Determining the effects of prescribed fire on forest structure and composition of the overstory and herbaceous layer
  • Assessing the effects of prescribed fire on tree and timber quality
  • Evaluating the habitat condition and suitability of woodlands and savannas
  • Evaluating impacts of co-establishing native grasses and legumes with trees and shrubs with and without prescribed fires for savanna restoration.

Expected Outcomes

Our goals are to develop fundamental information about how to manage and regenerate oak and oak-pine woodlands and savannas with timber harvests and prescribed fire and to use this information to develop management guidelines to be applied on both public and private land.

Research Results

Fan, Z.; Ma, Z.; Dey, D.C.; Roberts, S.D. 2011. Response of advance reproduction of oaks and associated species to repeated prescribed fires in upland oak-hickory forests, Missouri. (in press) Forest Ecology and Management.

Kinkead, C.O.; Kabrick, J.M. ; Stambaugh, M.C.; Grabner, K.W. (In press). Changes to oak woodland stand structure and ground flora composition caused by thinning and burning. In: Gottschalk, K.W.; Brooks, J.R. (eds.) Proceedings: 18th Central Hardwood Forest Conference; 2012, March 26-28, Morgantown, WV. NRS-GTR-XXX. XX .

Stambaugh, M.C.; Dey, D.C.; Guyette, R.P., He, H.; Marschall, J.M. 2011. Spatial patterning of fuels and fire hazard across a central U.S. deciduous forest region. Landscape Ecology 26: 923-935.

Navarrete-Tindall, N. 2010.  Native cool-season grasses in Missouri. Missouri Prairie Journal 31(2): 20-25.

Dey, D.C.; Fan, Z. 2009. A review of fire and oak regeneration and overstory recruitment. In: Hutchinson, T.F. (ed.) Proceedings of the 3rd fire in eastern oak forests conference; 2008 May 20-22; Carbondale, IL. NRS-GTR-P-46. Newtown Square, PA: USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station: 2-20.

Ponder, F., Jr.; Tadros, M.; Lowenstein, E.F.  2009.  Microbial properties and litter and soil nutrients after two prescribed fires in developing savannas in an upland Missouri Ozark forest.  Forest Ecology and Management.

Navarrete-Tindall, N.E.; Van Sambeek, J. W; Coe, J.; Taylor, W.  2007.  Plant composition in oak savanna and woodland restorations at the Prairie Fork Conservation Area in Missouri.  In: Buckley, D.S.; Clatterbuck, Wayne K. (eds.)  Proceedings, Fifteenth Central Hardwood Forest Conference.  SRS-GTR-101.  Ashville, NC: USDA Forest Service, Southern Research Station: 674-685. 

Kolaks, J.J.; Cutter, B.E.; Loewenstein, E.F.; Grabner, K.W.; Hartman, G.W.; Kabrick, J.M. 2004. The effect of thinning and prescribed fire on fuel loading in the Central Hardwood Region of Missouri. In: Yaussy, D.A.; Hix, D.J. ; Long, R.P.; Goebel, P.C. (eds.) Proceedings: 14th Central Hardwood Forest Conference; 2004 March 16-19; Wooster, OH. NE-GTR-316. Newtown Square, PA: USDA Forest Service. Northeastern Research Station: 168-178.

Navarrete-Tindall, N.E.; Van Sambeek, J. W.; Pierce, R. A.  2004.  Cluster fescue (Festuca paradoxa Desv.): A multipurpose native cool-season grass.  In: Barnes, Thomas (ed.) Proceedings: 4th Eastern Native Grass Conference.  Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky: 116-121. 

Van Sambeek, J. W.; McGraw, R. L.; Navarrete-Tindall, N. E.; Beuselinck, P. R.  2002.  Response of four oak species to herbaceous perennial legumes in an upland oak savanna restoration project.  In: Sung, S.; Kormanik, P. P.; Ostrosina, W. J.; Isebrands, J. G. (eds.)  8th Workshop on Seedling Physiology and Growth Problems in Oak Plantings (Abstracts).  NC-GTR-224.  St. Paul, MN: USDA Forest Service, North Central Research Station: 19.

Research Participants

Principal Investigators

  • Daniel C. Dey, Research Forester, US Forest Service- Northern Research Station
  • John M. Kabrick, Research Forester, US Forest Service- Northern Research Station
  • Jerry Van Sambeek, Research Physiologist, US Forest Service- Northern Research Station

Research Partners


Last Modified: 01/24/2012