PGC habitat-improvement project includes controlled-burn on State Game Land176

State College, Pa.
— Pennsylvania Game Commission officials recently announced that
they plan to conduct controlled burns on the Scotia Barrens on
State Game Land 176 in Patton Township, Centre County, to improve
habitat conditions within this unique ecosystem. 

Originally
outlined in public meetings and meetings with news media in the
area in March of 2009, Game Commission officials said that the
planned prescribed burns will reduce the possibility of an
uncontrolled wildfire impacting the surrounding developed
communities.

“We are starting
the public announcement process earlier this year to ensure that,
if weather conditions cooperate, we can reach our prescribed burn
goal on State Game Land 176,” said Bill Capouillez, Bureau of
Wildlife Habitat Management director.

 
“This year, our target goal is to
burn the periphery buffer area between the surrounding developments
and the high fuel loads existing on the State Game Land. This
buffer burn area must be completed first in order to reduce the
fuel load closest to the nearby homes, while also creating a much
larger safety barrier for our interior burn areas that will begin
in 2011.”

The buffer control
area is comprised of three, 95-acre parcels which are slated to be
burned between March 8 and May 8.

“This will allow
us to burn the portion of the buffer area we missed last year, as
well as the remaining portions of the buffer area we had hoped to
burn this year,” Capouillez said.

 
“We didn’t open the window of
opportunity last year until April 6, because we wanted to provide
advance notice to the public.  This year, we are beginning the
public notification now so that we can take advantage of the prime
weather conditions that we anticipate will be available in
March.”

In reiterating the
importance for this controlled burn, Capouillez said that the
Scotia Barrens ecosystem, which is a scrub oak/pitch pine barrens,
depends on fire to regenerate itself.

“Prescribed burns
are a tool used by the Game Commission to improve habitat and, in
this case, will help maintain the ecological integrity of this
unique habitat, which supports a number of wildlife and plant
species of special concern,” Capouillez said.

 
“Also, this controlled burn will
reduce the fuel load — the leaf litter, pine needles and twigs on
the forest floor — that increases the chance of a catastrophic
wildfire being ignited by a lightening strike or by a cigarette
carelessly tossed on the ground.  Because of decades of fire
suppression, fuel loads are unnaturally high.  Prescribed fire
allows us to control when and where fire occurs rather than react
to an emergency situation.”
 
Additionally, the three 95-acre
burn units will serve as a firebreak for future prescribed burns
that are planned for the game land. 
 
To begin the preparation, agency
employees have already re-initiated last year’s coordination
efforts with all other jurisdictional agencies on the protection of
any known cultural resources, as well as plants and animals
designated as having a higher status of special concern. Much of
the physical preparation to conduct the burns also was completed
last year when agency personnel created fire breaks using existing
roads, trails, herbaceous openings and dozed fire
lines.

Capouillez noted
that residents may see smoke emerging from the Scotia Barrens
during the window of opportunity that the agency has targeted for
the controlled burn, which is March 8 to May 8. This window was
specifically selected to avoid peak incubation period for ruffed
grouse (May 8), songbird nesting (May 14) and the birth of fawns
(June 1).

“While we want to
avoid the nesting, brooding and birthing cycles, the low-intensity
heat from a slow, controlled burn will enable wildlife in the burn
areas to escape in advance of the fire,” Capouillez said.  “We have
had experiences in the past where wild turkey nests have been known
to be passed over by a controlled burn and the hen still returns to
incubate the eggs. That would not be the result in the case of a
wildfire.”

Capouillez
emphasized that burning will be done when the weather is suitable
to allow for a safe burn, including the rapid rising and dispersal
of smoke.  Also, he noted that the partnerships involved in this
burn will ensure safety throughout the process.

“Once again, the
Nature Conservancy has agreed to serve as ‘burn boss,’ and oversee
the entire project,” Capouillez said. “Since controlled burning
requires careful timing and a thorough knowledge of weather and
fire behavior, highly trained fire personnel with either state or
national certification from the Game Commission, The Nature
Conservancy, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and Department of
Military and Veterans Affairs will partner to conduct this burn, as
well as to provide equipment, materials and support.”

Capouillez said
that the agency also has begun notifying local elected officials,
emergency management agencies, fire companies, local airports and
local Pennsylvania Department of Transportation
officials.

Optimal weather
conditions will be chosen for smoke dispersal, but Capouillez noted
that during these controlled burns nearby residents will certainly
see and smell smoke. The smoke usually disappears by the end of the
day.

“People become
upset when there is smoke in the air if they don’t know the reason
for the fire,” Capouillez said. “That’s why we’re trying to get the
word out about prescribed fire. If we carefully plan and conduct a
burn when weather conditions favor smoke dispersal, this reduces
smoke-related problems. Dealing with a little bit of smoke now is
infinitely better than trying to control a raging wildfire
later.”

Capouillez noted
that the Game Commission has conducted prescribed burns on more
than 1,500 acres of State Game Lands over the past three
years.

“Added benefits
from this prescribed burn will be a temporary reduction in ticks, a
reduction in exotic and invasive species, training for those who
participate in prescribed burns and informing the public about the
benefits of prescribe burns,” Capouillez said.

Pennsylvania’s
Wildlife Action Plan cites fire as an important tool in managing
certain habitats, including barrens, forests and grasslands, and
for species of greatest conservation need. For more information,
visit the Game Commission’s website (www.pgc.state.pa.us), click on “Wildlife” in
the left-hand column, click on “Pennsylvania Wildlife Action
Plan.”

SGL 176 currently
contains 6,231 acres in Ferguson, Half Moon and Patton
townships.

Categories: Pennsylvania – Jeff Mulhollem

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