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TUESDAY, JULY 10, 2007
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Drought halts burns to restore Bankhead

By Paul Huggins
phuggins@decaturdaily.com 340-2395

The U.S. Forest Service's efforts to restore much of Bankhead National Forest to its natural state stalled this summer.

Blame Mother Nature.

This year's prolonged drought has caused forest officials to halt burns it normally conducts during the growing season.

"More than likely, they'll be deferred for another year," Bankhead District Ranger Glen Gaines said of the 5,000 acres of mostly longleaf and shortleaf pines that had been scheduled for controlled burns this summer.

That, in turn, can delay next year's planned burns for other areas until 2009, and so on, he added.

Burns delayed

The Wilburn Fort area just south of Lawrence County near Grayson was one of the larger tracts slated for burning this summer. Pine Torch community in Lawrence County also had its burn delayed.

The burns are vital to forest health, both to plant and animal species, Gaines said. That's why the 2003 Forest Restoration Act called for significant increases in burns.

Prior to 2003, Bankhead burned 2,000 to 3,000 acres of the 180,000-acre-acre forest each year. Since then, it has increased that to 12,000 or more, he said. Bankhead rangers burned about 10,000 acres of mostly hardwood forests during the winter.

The forest service burns the woods to protect the ecosystem and imitate natural fires that managed the forests naturally before human intervention.

Dave Borland, biologist for the Nature Conservancy, said longleaf pine woodlands can't reproduce and maintain vigorous growth without frequent, low intensity fire. Pine seeds need exposed soil created by the fires to germinate.

The open forest landscape also is a necessary habitat for both endangered and common wildlife, such as the red cockaded woodpecker, bobwhite and fox squirrel, he said.

Borland warned that excluding controlled burns also increases the risk of intense wildfires.

Gaines said wildfires are more likely to wipe out an entire ecosystem and are difficult to control.

"(A wildlife) burns hotter, and the fire is a lot more erratic," he said.

North Alabama's drought, the worst in 118 years, has dried out the forest to the point that even a planned burn can easily get out of control and become a wildfire, Gaines said.

Delaying the burns one year should be OK, he said, and it will only hurt the long-term restoration efforts if spring/summer droughts continue for several years or more.

"We've had a number of dormant season burns in there," Gaines said, "so I think they'll be in good shape next year when we try to go in there and do this again."

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