In a reversal of 70 years of “vigorously suppressed” fires on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Superintendent Phil Francis has announced that 150 acres will be burned near Doughton Park “to return the site to a more natural vegetation type” and “increase the quality of wildlife habitat.”
The fire, dubbed the “Mahogany Rock Burn,” will be the very first conducted entirely on the Parkway by Parkway personnel under the park’s 2005 Fire Management Plan, says Bob Cherry, the Blue Ridge Parkway’s wildlife biologist.
In the past, “forest fires used to be universally considered evil and the effort was to always put out fires before trees were burned,” Cherry says.
The Parkway’s Fire Management Plan has changed all that. Cherry says, “Now we know that fire plays an important part in many ecosystems, so fire has become a tool in management. Certainly we can put out fires if they threaten important resources or if they would create a major environmental impact, such as a dozer line,” he continues. “But the new policy also gives us the ability to set fires if they would be beneficial.”
The Parkway’s lack of a prescribed burn policy has caused significant complications for the Parkway and managers of adjoining land in the Pisgah National Forest. As recently as 2005, USFS fires set below the Parkway “had to be stopped at the Parkway boundary, requiring the construction of miles of hand-dug fire lines in rugged terrain,” says Cherry. “Now we can let the fire burn onto parkway property, to burn to the road, before we put it out. Needless to say, the Forest Service is happy about that.”
That new approach took place with two burns above Old Fort, North Carolina, near Mount Mitchell in 2010 and again in 2012. In that latter fire, 2,000 acres burned on Forest Service land and 100 acres were torched on the Parkway. Cherry says, “it was our neighbor’s fire and we tagged along.”
The “Mahogany Rock Burn” will be entirely supervised by the Parkway. The 110-acre burn near Milepost 235 in Alleghany County “will occur sometime between March 1 and early April, and will last 1 to 2 days “in order to reduce the amount of smoke.”
The environmental goal of the burn is “to use a series of low-intensity controlled burns over a number of years to restore the composition and open structure of the oak and pine forests that occur on upper slopes and ridges within the site. These plant communities, which need occasional fires to regenerate, are important to wildlife and overall ecosystem health, and they are in decline throughout the Southern Appalachian region.”
The lack of fire has created a new, closed canopy forest that allows little light to reach the forest floor, resulting in a decline of plant and animal diversity. This series of burns will reduce the number of fire-sensitive trees and shrubs while increasing the extent and diversity of native grasses and wildflowers.
The Parkway is expected to be closed for a few days during firing operations between Milepost 234 at Cable Car Road and Milepost 235.7 at the Devils Garden Parking Area.