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Northern Research Station
11 Campus Blvd., Suite 200
Newtown Square, PA 19073
(610) 557-4017
(610) 557-4132 TTY/TDD

Sustaining Forests

Restoration of Mixed Oak Forests in Southern Ohio with Prescribed Fire

Research Issue

Researcher lighting a prescribed burn fire on the Vinton Furnace Experimental Forest.In the eastern U.S., fire suppression has been implicated as a primary factor facilitating shifts in forest composition from oak to other species, often maples. The state of Ohio began suppressing fires in 1923. Oaks are considered well-adapted to a regime of frequent low- to moderate-intensity fires because they possess thick bark, the ability sprout repeatedly after being topkilled, and are intermediate in shade tolerance. Oaks continue to dominate the overstory of many second-growth forests in southern Ohio. However, several species, including red maple and sugar maple, now dominate the midstory and understory layers. Thus, without management intervention (e.g., prescribed fire), non-oak species are likely to replace oaks.

Our Research

In 1994, Dr. Elaine Kennedy Sutherland received a grant to conduct this study, one of several long-term ecosystem management projects funded by the Washington Office of the US Forest Service. The research objectives are to determine ecological responses of mixed-oak communities to prescribed fire under two regimes (annual and periodic fires). The ecosystem management goals and applications are:

  1. to determine appropriate prescribed fire regimes as management tools in restoring structure, function, and composition (fire-adapted flora) to mixed-oak forests, and
  2. to design and implement a monitoring program of fire effects and ecosystem sustainability.

Four study areas (75-110 ha) are located in the Unglaciated Allegheny Plateau Region of southern Ohio. The mixed-oak forests are even-aged, originating after clearcutting in the late 1800s. Each study area has a control unit (no fire), a periodic burn unit (burned in spring 1996 and 1999), and an annual burn unit (burned each spring 1996-1999). The study areas are stratified by an Integrated Moisture Index (IMI) that models long-term soil moisture status. Nine permanent plots (50 x 25 m) are located in each treatment unit to monitor vegetation and soils.

A team of research cooperators (visit "Research Cooperators" link) was assembled in 1994 and 1995 and the following studies were initiated:

  1. Annual monitoring of stand structure, composition, and regeneration,
  2. A dendroecological study documenting fire histories of southern Ohio forests,
  3. Annual monitoring of soil pH, nitrogen content, and nitrogen mineralization and nitrification rates,
  4. Periodic monitoring of soil chemical composition,
  5. Periodic monitoring of soil enzyme activity,
  6. A study of fine-root productivity, decomposition, and nitrogen content,
  7. A study of soil microarthopod abundance,
  8. Annual monitoring of understory light availability,
  9. Monitoring of fire behavior and fuels,
  10. Annual monitoring of understory plant composition and diversity,
  11. Monitoring of tree foliar nutrients,
  12. Annual monitoring of breeding bird populations, including nesting success, and
  13. Annual monitoring of the abundance and diversity of selected arthropod groups, including ground beetles and moths.
Collection of data for the initial funding cycle of the project (1995-1999) has been completed.

Twenty eight scientific publications (visit "Publications" link) on various aspects of the project have been produced (17 papers in referred journals, 5 papers in conference proceedings, 1 master's thesis, and 5 doctoral dissertations). For most of the studies listed above, researcher's are continuing to analyze data for upcoming publications. The four study areas are being maintained as research sites. We plan to continue prescribed fires and periodic data collection, contingent on research findings and funding.

Project Update

1994-Grant awarded to Elaine Kennedy Sutherland; research team established; experimental design finalized; four study areas selected; 108 plots established; Soil texture and chemistry data collected; annual cooperator's meeting held.

1995-Pre-burn data collected: fuels; soil C and N dynamics; soil enzymes; light availability; understory vegetation; rare plant monitoring; tree regeneration; overstory; foliar chemistry; breeding birds; selected arthropod groups; annual cooperator's meeting held.

1996-Ten prescribed fires were conducted on the 4 annual units and the 4 periodic units from early to mid-April; Fire temperatures were recorded on plots; Post-burn data were collected on fuels; soil C & N dynamics; soil enzymes; light availability; understory vegetation; rare plant monitoring; tree regeneration; overstory; foliar chemistry; breeding birds; selected arthropod groups; annual cooperator's meeing held.

1997-Prescribed fires conducted on the 4 annual burn units in late March and early April; Data collected: fire temperatures; fuels; soil C & N dynamics; soil enzymes; fine roots; light availability; understory vegetation; rare plant monitoring; tree regeneration; overstory; foliar chemistry; breeding birds; selected arthropod groups; annual cooperator's meeing held.

1998-Prescribed fires conducted on the 4 annual burn units in late March and early April; Data collected: fire temperatures; fuels; soil C & N dynamics; soil enzymes; light availability; understory vegetation; rare plant monitoring; tree regeneration; overstory; foliar chemistry; selected arthropod groups; annual cooperator's meeing held.

1999-Prescribed fires were conducted on the 4 annual and 4 periodic units in late March and early April; Overall, from 1995-99, 732 hectares (1808 acres) were burned. Data collected: fire temperatures; fuels; soil C & N dynamics; soil enzymes; fine roots, soil chemistry, light availability; understory vegetation; rare plant monitoring; tree regeneration; overstory; foliar chemistry; selected arthropod groups; annual cooperator's meeing held.

2000-Data collected: Soil C & N dynamics; soil enzymes; fine roots, soil chemistry; selected arthropod groups; tree seedlings; annual cooperator's meeting held.

2001-Data collected: tree seedlings. All plot corners were re-established, painted, and flagged. All overstory trees were re-painted.

Upcoming: Future studies will be contingent on results from the first phase of prescribed fires and funding. The Forest Service Northern Research Station plans to maintain the sites for research and to periodically re-sample the overstory vegetation, tree regeneration, and understory vegetation. Prescribed fires will likely continue on these research sites but are not scheduled for spring 2002.

Research Results

Twenty eight scientific publications on various aspects of the project have been produced (17 papers in referreed journals, 5 papers in conference proceedings, 1 master's thesis, and 5 doctoral dissertations). For most of the studies listed, researcher's are continuing to analyze data for upcoming publications. The four study areas are being maintained as research sites. We plan to continue prescribed fires and periodic data collection, contingent on research findings and funding.

Purrington, F. F., R. C. Stanton, and D. J. Horn. 1999. Ground beetle range extensions: six new Ohio records (Coleoptera: Carabidae). Great Lakes Entomologist 32:47-49.

Decker, K. L. M., R. E. J. Boerner, and S. J. Morris. 1999. Scale-dependent patterns of soil enzyme activity in a forested landscape. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 29:232-241.

Dettmers, R. P., and J. Bart. 1999. A GIS modeling method to predicting forest songbird habitat. Ecological Applications 9:152-163.

Hutchinson, T. F., R. E. J. Boerner, L. R. Iverson, S. Sutherland, and E. K. Sutherland. 1999. Landscape patterns of understory composition and richness across a moisture and nitrogen mineralization gradient in Ohio (U.S.A.) Quercus forests. Plant Ecology 144:177-189.

Morris, S. J., and R.E.J. Boerner. 1999. Spatial distribution of fungal and bacterial biomass in southern Ohio hardwood forest soils: I. Scale dependency and landscape patterns. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 31:887-902.

Morris, S. J. 1999. Spatial distribution of fungal and bacterial biomass in southern Ohio hardwood forest soils: fine scale variability and microscale patterns. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 31:1375-1386.

Morris, S. J., and R. E. J. Boerner. 1998. Landscape patterns of nitrogen mineralization and nitrificaiton in southern Ohio hardwood forests. Landscape Ecology 13:215-224.

Morris, S. J. 1998. Distribution patterns and scale dependency of microbial abundance and processes in relation to soil chemistry and vegetation in hardwood forest soils. Dissertation. Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.

Decker, K. L. M., and R. E. J. Boerner. 1997. Ca:Al ratio effects on growth and competitive interactions of northern red oak (Quercus rubra) and yellow-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera). Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society 124:286-296.

Dettmers, R. P. 1997. Nesting success and habitat preferences of forest-breeding migratory passerines in southeastern Ohio. Dissertation. Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.

Iverson, L. R., M. E. Dale, C. T. Scott, and A. Prasad. 1997. A GIS-derived integrated moisture index to predict forest composition and productivity in Ohio forests. Landscape Ecology 12:331-348.

Purrington, F. F., and D. J. Horn. 1996. Clearwing moths captured by ultraviolet light traps in Southern Ohio (Lepidoptera: sesiidae). The Great Lakes Entomologist 29:191-193.

Purrington, F. F., and R. C. Stanton. 1996. New records of five ground beetles from Ohio (Coleoptera: carabidae). The Great Lakes Entomologist 29:43-44.

Reseaarch Reporting Post-Fire Results (Includes journal articles, theses and dissertations, and conference proceedings papers)

Artman, V. L., E. K. Sutherland, and J. F. Downhower. 2001. Prescribed burning to restore mixed-oak communities in southern Ohio: effects on breeding bird populations. Conservation Biology 15:1423-1434.

Dress, W. J. 2001. Patterns of belowground productivity in oak-hickory forests in southern Ohio in relation to prescribed fire and landscape position. Dissertation. Ohio State University, Columbus, OH.

Dress, W. J., and R. E. J. Boerner. 2001. Root dynamics of southern Ohio oak-hickory forests: influences of prescribed fire and landscape position. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 31:644-653.

Artman, V. L. 2000. Effects of prescribed burning on forest bird populations in southern Ohio. Dissertation. Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.

Boerner, R. E. J. 2000. Effects of fire on the ecology of the forest floor and soil of central hardwoods forests. Pages 56-63 in D. A. Yaussy, Compiler. Proceedings: workshop on fire, people, and the central hardwoods landscape. USDA Forest Service GTR NE-274.

Boerner, R. E. J., K. L. M. Decker, and E. K. Sutherland. 2000. Prescribed burning effects on soil enzyme activity in a southern Ohio hardwood forest: a landscape-scale analysis. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 32:899-908.

Boerner, R. E. J., S. J. Morris, E. K. Sutherland, and T. F. and Hutchinson. 2000. Spatial variability in soil nitrogen dynamics after prescribed burning in Ohio mixed-oak forests. Landscape Ecology 15:425-439.

Hines, E. B. 2000. Indigenous landscape management by fire and moisture patch dynamics: an experimental approach in the Ohio Valley, USA. Thesis. Ohio University, Athens, Ohio.

Hutchinson, T. F., and S. Sutherland. 2000. Fire and understory vegetation: a large-scale study in Ohio and a search for general response patterns in central hardwood forests. Pages 64-74 in D. A. Yaussy, Compiler. Proceedings: workshop on fire, people, and the central hardwoods landcape. USDA Forest Service GTR NE-274.

Stanton, R. C. S. 2000. Ground beetle abundance and diversity patterns within mixed-oak forests subjected to prescribed burning in southern Ohio. Dissertation. Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.

Sutherland, E. K., and K. T. Smith. 2000. Resistance is not futile: the response of hardwoods to fire-caused wounding. Pages 111-115 in D. A. Yaussy, Compiler. Proceedings: workshop on fire, people, and the central hardwoods landscape. USDA Forest Service GTR NE-274.

Robison, S. A., and B. C. McCarthy. 1999. Potential factors affecting the estimation of light availability using hemispherical photography in oak forest understories. Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society 126:344-349.

Smith, K. T., and E. K. Sutherland. 1999. Fire-scar formation and compartmentalization in oak. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 29:166-171.

Sutherland, E. K. 1997. The history of fire in a southern Ohio second-growth mixed-oak forest. Pages 172-183 in S. G. Pallardy, R. A. Cecich, H. E. Garrett, and P. S. Johnson, Editors. Proceedings, 11th central hardwoods forest conference. USDA Forest Service GTR NC-188.

Yaussy, D. A., and E. K. Sutherland. 1993. Fire history in the Ohio River Valley and its relation to climate. Pages 777-786 in Proceedings of the 12th Conference on Fire and Forest Meterology. Society of American Foresters, Bethesda, MD.

Research Participants

Principal Investigators

  • Todd F. Hutchinson, USDA Forest Service- Northern Research Station Ecologist
  • Louis R. Iverson, USDA Forest Service- Northern Research Station Landscape Ecologist
  • Daniel A. Yaussy, USDA Forest Service- Northern Research Station Supervisory Research Forester

Research Partners

  • Vanessa L. Artman, Kenyon College - Department of Biology
  • Ralph E. J. Boerner, Ohio State University - Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology
  • David J. Horn, Ohio State University - Department of Entomology
  • Brian McCarthy, Ohio University - Department of Environmental and Plant Biology
  • Elaine Kennedy Sutherland, US Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station



Last Modified: 01/27/2010