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If total carbon storage is the goal, prescribed fire is the ideal land management technique for southeastern pine forests

Without fire, forests in the southeastern U.S. typically grow until the canopy is closed and the understory is dense. These forests store more carbon than managed pine forests would, but they are also at much greater risk of releasing all that carbon in a stand-replacing wildfire. When carbon emissions from wildfire are considered, prescribed fire is the ideal land management practice with respect to net ecosystem carbon balance, reports a new modeling study.

Director’s Choice
A line of small flames spreads across a forest floor
The study supports the use of frequent low-intensity prescribed fires in southeastern pinelands. USDA Forest Service photo by Virginia McDaniel.

Forests typically store more carbon when fires are suppressed. However, in longleaf pine forests of the southeastern U.S., where the chances of a stand-replacing fire are high and climate and soil conditions support rapid forest growth, these interactions needed to be further explored.

The research team used two forest succession models for the study. Both models predicted that prescribed fire provides the greatest carbon storage potential and most stable aboveground biomass. The models simulated fire suppression, prescribed fire and wildfire, above and belowground carbon, and whether forests were storing or emitting carbon. The results suggest that fires would have to be suppressed for centuries – which is not possible – to provide greater total carbon storage than that of frequent prescribed fire.

This modeling study supports high frequency prescribed fire in southeastern U.S. pinelands to stabilize carbon. This is in addition to the other benefits frequent fires in this ecosystem can provide, including maintaining quality trees for selective timber harvesting, conservation of rare species, and improving foraging habitat for game species such as white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and bobwhite quail.

Principal Investigators
Mac Callaham, Team Leader, Research Ecologist
Scott Goodrick, Center Director, Supervisory Research Meteorologist
Joseph O’Brien, Project Leader, Research Ecologist
E. Louise Loudermilk, Research Ecologist
RWU
4156 - Center for Forest Disturbance Science
Publication
A model comparison of fire return interval impacts on carbon and species dynamics in a southeastern U.S. pineland
External Partners
Steve Flanagan, Tall Timbers Research Station
J. Kevin Hiers, Tall Timbers Research Station
Gregory Starr, University of Alabama
Susanne Wiesner, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Kier Klepzig, The Jones Center at Ichauway