Prescribed Fire Effects Research at Head of the Plains
Nantucket’s rare sandplain grassland and heathland plant communities are largely the products of past human land use practices. Native Americans were believed to have regularly set fires in order to clear land for agriculture and stimulate the production of native berries. European settlers harvested trees for firewood, house construction and ship building. The constant sheep grazing that occurred during the 1700 – 1800’s discouraged the growth of tall shrubs and trees and allowed grasses and low shrubs to become established. As a result, Nantucket’s sandplain grassland and heathland habitats now support high concentrations of rare species that are of high conservation concern.
However, most of the land use activities that created these communities have ceased over the last century, allowing scrub oak, pitch pine and other tall shrubs to slowly take over. Because these communities and their associated species are disturbance-dependent, they require active land management to prevent them from disappearing. Prescribed fire is one of several tools that the Foundation utilizes to achieve this goal. Fire is a natural process that has been part of the environment for thousands of years and is still used under controlled conditions to produce desirable ecological goals and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.
Head of the Plains contains the largest contiguous acreage of rare sandplain grassland and heathland habitat under the Foundation’s ownership. Therefore, managing and protecting the unique plant species associated with these habitats is a high conservation priority. We have conducted comprehensive research to document the effects of prescribed fire applied during different seasons on rare plant species and vegetation communities in order to make educated decisions about when and under what conditions to employ this management tool. We are currently working with our colleagues at the Nantucket Land Bank (who have been collecting similar data on their Smooth Hummocks properties) and an independent statistical consultant to analyze this data and develop a manuscript reporting research results and management recommendations for grassland and heathland habitats on Nantucket and elsewhere.