LINCOLN, Neb. -- Federal researchers affiliated with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's School of Natural Resources are helping land managers on the Plains piece together a history of fire in the region.

Fire brings many ecological benefits. In forests, it stops build-up of deadwood, preventing more devastating fires. On the prairie, it prevents colonizing woody vegetation and helps reinvigorate growth of grasses. But in most protected areas, fire so rarely occurs that it has to be re-introduced by management decision.

Having some record of how fire once operated means it can be re-introduced in similar ways. In forested areas, tree ring analysis offers evidence of fire's frequency and extent. Fire burns the tree and leaves a scar on the annual growth ring. But in grasslands, where trees are rare, little evidence exists.

"The idea behind the project is that the Great Plains has been principally overlooked in examining fire history due to a lack of trees. But on the perimeter of the plains, there are trees," said Gary Willson, research coordinator with the SNR-based Great Plains Cooperative Ecosystems Studies Unit.

Willson is coordinating the compilation of a record of fire on the prairie from before European settlement.

In addition to the perimeter, researchers also are interested in fire's history in two other areas: the Niobrara River, crossing Nebraska west to east, and parts of the Missouri River in northeast Nebraska.

"Those two areas might give us some history right in the middle of the Great Plains," Willson said.

The collaborative effort includes the University of Missouri-Columbia's Tree Ring Laboratory, the U.S. Geological Survey's Missouri Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and the National Park Service. Researchers will examine tree ring evidence from ponderosa pine and oak trees and feed this data into a fire model that will help fill gaps in fire history where trees are lacking.

During the project's first full field season this past summer, Willson, a fire ecologist, and Richard Guyette, director of the tree ring lab, both worked in the Missouri River valley and Guyette in the Niobrara valley.

"Many resource managers of the national parks in the Great Plains use fire to manage vegetation. And by and large, they don't have information about the occurrence of fire before European settlement. So they may be guessing about when to use it. This information is very valuable as they re-create a fire regime," Willson said.

Parks that can sustain or use fire must have a Fire Management Plan. Such plans help managers assess the state of local and regional ecosystems, make management decisions, create restoration plans and assess national fire plans. The fire histories also can be used by nongovernmental organizations managing grasslands, such as the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society and others.

The Great Plains Cooperative Ecosystems Studies Unit includes a dozen university partners and six federal agencies. This project is funded by a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Nationwide, the ecosystem studies program secures research, technical assistance and education by universities to support science-based management of federal lands.
SNR is affiliated with the university's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

SOURCE: University of Nebraska news release.