Forests across southern Ohio still suffer from the devastating ice storm that occurred on Valentine’s Day in 2003. Shawnee State Forest was especially hard hit with tens-of-thousands of downed trees and thousands more significantly damaged.
By responsibly harvesting much of the damaged wood, the Division of Forestry has been able to return more than $2,000,000 in revenue to the local community while dramatically increasing the health of the forest.
It’s not the first time the forest’s health has suffered. In the early 1900s, the hillsides of Shawnee bore the mark of years of poor farming and timbering techniques, resulting in extensive erosion. Photographs from that time are stark and unrecognizable when compared to the forest that we enjoy today. By using the best science-based management of the day, Shawnee Forest was renewed and has continued to receive scrupulous management by Division of Forestry staff. Over time, we improved those practices and the forest has become one of the most beautiful in the state, with diverse wildlife and a steady source of income for the local community.
We’ve also learned that in addition to appropriate harvesting techniques, fire is an integral part of Ohio’s ecosystem and when used properly is a valuable tool for replenishing the traditional oak forests that have stood witness to the Ohio Valley for thousands of years. Without fire, maples out-grow our traditional oaks, as we are now experiencing on much of the private lands throughout our state. Unless this trend is reversed, it will mean less food for wildlife and the loss of one of the most valuable ecological and economic species in our forests.
How do wildlife, including endangered and threatened animal and plant species respond to controlled burns? A majority of species listed in Ohio’s Natural Heritage Database of endangered plant species actually benefit from low intensity fire. And wildlife managers say that animals quickly return after the fire.
Through the careful use of prescribed fire, a forest can more quickly rejuvenate, be restored to its natural oak composition, and lessen what continues to be a menacing level of downed trees and limbs that represent highly unusual and increasingly dangerous fuel for potential wildfires.
Last fall, we successfully conducted a prescribed fire project near Shawnee Lodge. The project’s goal was to decrease the risk of potential fire near the resort lodge and cabin facilities. The project was extremely successful - and safe - thanks to the widespread support of local volunteer fire departments as well as fellow natural resource agencies and conservation groups. To conduct this burn, state foresters were very diligent in waiting for the ideal weather conditions required for such a management project.
I would encourage anyone in Scioto County to take a hike around the Shawnee Lodge this fall to see how beneficial prescribed fires can be to our landscape. Visitors will see thriving trees and a healthy understory.
Based upon sound, Ohio-based research, prescribed fire has shown effective in improving the health of forests. We have embarked on a 10-year fire plan for Shawnee State Forest for these reasons, and are pleased to have support from local volunteer fire departments, The Nature Conservancy, the USDA Forest Service, the Ohio Rural Fire Council and state wildlife and natural areas experts.
While the use of prescribed fire is a new forest management tool in Ohio, the technique helps fulfill the same mission that has benefited Shawnee State Forest for the past 80 years; using tested science to protect and benefit the forests and people of Shawnee.
Mike Bowden is a nationally certified Fire Behavior Analyst and is a faculty member at Ohio State University where he teaches fire management. He is Administrator of the Ohio Division of Forestry’s Fire Program.