Take a walk or bike ride along the Milestone Bike Path near the Tom Nevers Road intersection or in the South Pastures area of the island (between the airport and Tom Nevers) and you will notice some dramatic clearing of vegetation and new open areas. Nantucket Conservation Foundation staff have been working on brushcutting management this past fall and winter as part of our Wildland Fire Risk Management Program. This project has two mutually-compatible goals: 1) to reduce the risk of wildfire occurring on Nantucket and 2) conduct management to benefit rare species and plant communities, including sandplain grasslands, heathlands and scrub oak barrens. The Foundation’s Wildland Fire Risk Management Program was first adopted in 2011 by our Board of Trustees and our staff has been implementing management in key areas around the island such as the Middle Moors, Trots Hills, Head of the Plains and now South Pastures.
The unique landscapes of Nantucket’s conservation properties, ranging in size from 10 acres to over 3,000 acres, are surrounded by homes, roads, power lines, and other public infrastructure. People living adjacent to protected lands are lucky to enjoy these beautiful properties just outside their back door, but these areas can also be at risk in a landscape adapted to fire. Many of the plants here on Nantucket contain high levels of oils and resins in their stems, twigs and leaves, which ignite easily, burn intensely and can spread fire rapidly. The vast majority of these species not only exhibit such fire adaptations, but actually require fire or some other type of disturbance for their continued existence. Although these habitats are regionally rare and host numerous rare species, it is problematic when this type of vegetation occurs in close proximity to people and buildings. Fire ecologists consider places where structures and other human development intermingle with undeveloped land containing dense, flammable vegetation to be high risk “Wildland-Urban Interface” zones. Management of vegetation around these zones is key for both preventing wildfires and controlling wildfires if they do occur.
Nantucket experienced two severe wildfire events in the 1900’s: in July 1949, approximately 1,300 acres burned adjacent to the Nantucket Memorial Airport and the State Forest; in August 1929, a fire engulfed an area exceeding 6,000 acres stretching from Madequecham to Quaise. Prior to this time, historic sheep grazing helped maintain open, less wildfire prone landscapes. More recent fire suppression and lack of management has lead the vegetation in many areas of the island to steadily growing taller and denser. Also, the number of homes built adjacent to undeveloped conservation lands has been steadily increasing. Because of these factors and the predominance of traditional wooden building materials used on the island, Nantucket has been designated a “Community at Risk” by the National Fire Plan. Further increasing our risk is Nantucket’s 2 ½ hour car ferry travel time, which limits the ability of off-island fire departments to promptly provide mutual aid to our local department in the event of a wildfire.
Nantucket’s fire-dependent habitats are designated as uncommon and exemplary “Priority Natural Communities” by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program because of the high concentrations of rare species that they contain. Restoring, maintaining, and conserving these ecologically-significant areas are high-priority goals for the Foundation. The challenge we face as land managers is to figure out how to best reduce “fuel loads” (the amount of flammable material present within a defined space) to increase public safety within the Wildland-Urban Interface adjacent to our conservation lands, while also complementing our ecological goals. Fortunately, this is not as challenging as it sounds. Brushcutting, tree removal, and/or prescribed burning are all management practices that reduce fire hazard and also promote habitat conditions for rare species associated with our grasslands, heathlands and shrublands.
The brushcutting work that the Foundation is undertaking requires a heavy duty, specialized piece of equipment called a Fecon mulching tractor. Through the generous support of an anonymous donor, the Foundation purchased its first Fecon tractor in 2012, which was used extensively over the past 6 years and has just been augmented by a second similar unit. During this time, we have systematically widened out existing roadways or cut strategic firebreaks through dense brush where no roads or trails on our Head of the Plains, Trots Hills and Middle Moors properties. This past winter, we began what will be a multi-year fire break establishment and road widening effort within the Tom Nevers area, just south of Milestone Road and west of Tom Nevers Road. The Foundation owns over 1,770 contiguous acres of tall, dense scrub oak immediately downwind of dense residential development along the western side of Tom Nevers Road, making these homes at high risk in the event of a wildfire.
These breaks are designed to provide large gaps in the vegetation that will slow the progress of wildfire and provide our fire department with a safe location from which to do fire suppression work. In order to avoid disturbing nesting birds and other wildlife, we limit our brushcutting efforts to the late fall, winter and early spring months. During these seasons, the lack of leaves on dense shrubs also affords increased visibility to the tractor operator so that large rocks and other natural obstructions can be avoided.
Once established, these breaks will be regularly maintained by periodic mowing. Although the initial cut creates a large amount of shredded woody material that gets deposited on the ground as a thick layer of mulch, these newly-opened landscapes look beautiful once the vegetation has greened up in the summer and follow-up treatments will reduce this debris over time. The results of road edge mowing that has been taking place within the Middle Moors area for many years demonstrates that these areas will eventually be colonized by native grass and wildflower species. In fact, some of the largest populations of our state-listed rare plant species, including New England blazing star (Liatris scariosa var. novae-angliae), eastern silvery aster (Symphyotrichum concolor) and sandplain blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium fuscatum) occur along open, sunny maintained road edge habitats.
We invite you to get out and enjoy our properties and see some of these treated areas first-hand, right after they have been cut……and then come back this summer to see how beautiful these newly-opened landscapes look once the vegetation has greened up! If you like what you see, please consider making a contribution to our dedicated fund that supports this important work.
For more information, please visit the Foundation’s website at: https://www.nantucketconservation.org/land-management-2/wildfire-program/
The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions, and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us! www.nantucketconservation.org