Skip to main content

Fire in the Virgin Forests of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Minnesota

  • Miron L. Heinselman (a1)

Fire largely determined the composition and structure of the presettlement vegetation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area as well as the vegetation mosaic on the landscape and the habitat patterns for wildlife. It also influenced nutrient cycles, and energy pathways, and helped maintain the diversity, productivity, and long-term stability of the ecosystem. Thus the whole ecosystem was fire-dependent.

At least some overstory elements in virtually all forest stands still date from regeneration that followed one or more fires since 1595 A.D. The average interval between significant fire years was about 4 yr in presettlement times, but shortened to 2 yr from 1868 to 1910 during settlement. However, 83% of the area burned before the beginning of suppression programs resulted from just nine fire periods: 1894, 1875, 1863–1964, 1824, 1801, 1755–1959, 1727, 1692, 1681. The average interval between these major fire years was 26 yr. Most present virgin forests date from regeneration that followed fires in these years. Significant areas were also regenerated by fires in 1903, 1910, 1936, and 1971. Most major fire years occurred during prolonged summer droughts of subcontinental extent, such as those of 1864, 1910, and 1936. Many fires were man-caused, but lightning ignitions were also common. Lightning alone is probably a sufficient source of ignitions to guarantee that older stands burned before attaining climax. Dry matter accumulations, spruce budworm outbreaks, blowdowns, and other interactions related to time since fire increase the probability that old stands will burn. Vegetation patterns on the landscape were influenced by such natural firebreaks as lakes, streams, wetlands, and moist slopes. Red and white pine are most common on islands, and to the east, northeast, or southeast of such firebreaks. Jack pine, aspen-birch, and sprout hardwood forests are most common on large uplands distant from or west of such firebreaks.

A Natural Fire Rotation of about 100 yr prevailed in presettlement times, but many red and white pine stands remained largely intact for 150–350 yr, and some jack pine and aspen-birch forests probably burned at intervals of 50 yr or less. There is paleoecological evidence that fire was an ecosystem factor before European man arrived, and even before early man migrated to North America. Probably few areas ever attained the postulated fir-spruce-cedar-birch climax in postglacial times. To understand the dynamics of fire-dependent ecosystems fire must be studied as an integral part of the system. The search for stable communities that might develop without fire is futile and avoids the real challenge of understanding nature on her own terms.

To restore the natural ecosystem of the Canoe Area fire should soon be reintroduced through a program of prescribed fires and monitored lightning fires. Failing this, major unnatural, perhaps unpredictable, changes in the ecosystem will occur.

Hide All
Ahlgren C.E., (1959). Some effects of fire on forest reproduction in northeastern Minnesota. Journal of Forestry 57, 194200.
Ahlgren C.E., (1960). Some effects of fire on reproduction and growth of vegetation in northeastern Minnesota. Ecology 41, 431445.
Ahlgren C.E., (1970). Some effects of prescribed burning on jack pine reproduction in northeastern Minnesota. University of Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, Miscellaneous Report 94 14Forestry Series 5.
Ahlgren I.F., Ahlgren C.E., (1960). Ecological effects of forest firest. Botanical Review 26, 483533.
Ahti T., Hepburn R.L., (1967). Preliminary studies of woodland caribou range, especially on lichen stands, in Ontario. Ontario Department of Lands and Forests, Research Report (Wildlife) 74, 66.
Anderson R.L., Kaufert F.H., (1959). Brooming response of black spruce to dwarf mistletoe infection. Forest Science 5, 356364.
Ayres H.B., (1899). Timber conditions of the pine region of Minnesota: Part I. Forest reserves. U.S. Geological Survey, 21st Annual Report 679689with map.
Baker D.G., Strub J.H. Jr., (1965). Climate of Minnesota: Part III. Temperature and its application. University of Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, Technical Bulletin 248, 64.
Baker D.G., Haines D.A., Strub J.H. Jr., (1967). Climate of Minnesota: Part V. Precipitation: facts, normals, and extremes. University of Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, Technical Bulletin 254, 44.
Barney R.J., (1971). Wildfires in Alaska—some historical and projected effects and aspects. Fire in the Northern Environment—a Symposium Fairbanks, Alaska, 19715159Proc.
Batzer H.O., (1969). Forest character and vulnerability of balsam fir to spruce budworm in Minnesota. Forest Science 15, 1 1725.
Beaufait W.R., (1960). Some effects of high temperatures on the cones and seeds of jack pine. Forest Science 6, 194199.
Beaufait W.R., (1962). Procedures in prescribed burning for jack pine regeneration. Michigan College of Mining and Technology, Tech. Bull. 9 37.
Blais J.R., (1965). Spruce budworm outbreaks in the past three centuries in the Laurentide Park, Quebec. Forest Science 11, 130138.
Books D.J., (1972). Little Sioux Burn: Year 2. Naturalist (Journal Natural History Society of Minnesota) 23, 27.
Braniff E.A., (1903). The proposed Lake Superior Forest Reserve, Lake and Cook Counties, Minnesota. Official Report in files of Superior National Forest 8(typed).
Brower D., (1960). The Meaning of Wilderness to Science. The Sierra Club San Francisco.
Buckman R.E., (1964a). Silvicultural use of prescribed burning in the Lake States. Proc. Society of American Foresters Denver, Colo, 19643840.
Buckman R.E., (1964b). Effects of prescribed burning on hazel in Minnesota. Ecology 45, 626629.
Buell M.F., Niering W.A., (1957). Fir-spruce-birch forest in northern Minnesota. Ecology 38, 602610.
Cayford J.H., (1971). The role of fire in the ecology and silviculture of jack pine. Proc. Tenth Annual Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference Fredericton N.B., 221244.
Clements F.E., (1910). The life history of lodgepole burn forests. U.S. Forest Service, Bull. 79 56.
Cooper W.S., (1913). The climax forest of Isle Royale, Lake Superior, and its development. Botanical Gazette 15, 144, 115140, 189235.
Craig A.J., (1972). Pollen influx to laminated sediments: a pollen diagram from northeastern Minnesota. Ecology 53, 4657.
Cringan A.T., (1957). History, food, habits, and range requirements of the woodland caribou of Continental North America. Proc. North American Wildlife Conference, 22nd 485501.
Dean J.L., (1971). Wetland forest communities of the eastern Boundary Waters Canoe Area. M.S. Thesis University of Minnesota 101.
Dodge M., (1972). Forest fuel accumulation—a growing problem. Science 177, 139142.
Falls B., (1967). The importance of wilderness to science. The Ontario Naturalist Dec. 1967.
Fenneman N.M., (1938). Physiography of Eastern United States. McGraw Hill Book Co New York.
Fowells H.A., (1965). Silvics of forest trees of the United States. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Agriculture Handbook No. 271 762.
Frissell S.S. Jr., (1968). A fire chronology for Itasca State Park, Minnesota. University of Minnesota, Forest Research Note 196 .
Frissell S.S. Jr., (1971). An analysis of the maintenance of pre-settlement biotic communities as an objective of management in Itasca State Park, Minnesota. Ph.D. Thesis 228, University of Minnesota.
Grange W., (1965). Fire and tree growth relationships to snowshoe rabbits. Proc. Fourth Annual Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference Tallahassee, Florida, 110125.
Grigal D.F., Ohmann L.F., (1973). Wilderness Ecology: the upland plant communities of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. North Central Forest Experiment Station and University of MinnesotaUnpublished Manuscript.
Gunderson H.L., Beer J.R., (1953). The Mammals of Minnesota. University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis.
Haines D.A., Sando R.W., (1969). Climatic conditions preceding historically great fires in the North Central Region. Forest Service Research Paper NC-34 19.
Hegyi F., (1972). Dry matter distribution in jack pine stands in northern Ontario. Forestry Chronicle 48, 193197.
Heinselman M.L., (1957). Silvical characteristics of black spruce (Picea mariana). U.S. Forest Service, Lake States Forest Experiment Station Paper 45 30(processed).
Heinselman M.L., (1963). Forest sites, bog processes, and peatland types in the Glacial Lake Agassiz region, Minnesota. Ecological Monographs 33, 327374.
Heinselman M.L., (1965a). Vegetation management in wilderness areas and primitive parks. Journal of Forestry 63, 440445.
Heinselman M.L., (1965b). Wilderness and National Park Management Goals. Journal of Forestry 63, 12Notes and comment.
Heinselman M.L., (1969). Diary of the Canoe Country's landscape. Naturalist (Journal Natural History Society of Minnesota) 20, 1 213.
Heinselman M.L., (1970a). Preserving nature in forested Wilderness Areas and National Parks. National Parks and Conservation Magazine 44, 276 814.
Heinselman M.L., (1970b). The natural role of fires in northern conifer forests. Symposium on “The role of fire in the Intermountain West”. Naturalist 21, Intermountain Fire Research Council 1423(4).
Heinselman M.L., (1970c). Landscape evolution, peatland types, and the environment in the Lake Agassiz Peatlands Natural Area, Minnesota. Ecological Monographs 40, 235261.
Heinselman M.L., (1971). Restoring fire to the ecosystems of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Minnesota. Proc. Tenth Annual Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference Fredericton N.B., 923.
Heinselman M.L., Roe E.I., (1963). A record of some Pleistocene trees and shrubs from Itasca County, Minnesota. Forest Science 9, 336337.
Higgins S.M., (1908). Additional area to the proposed Lake Superior National Forest, Minnesota. U.S. Forest Service 9(typed).
Irving F.D., French D.W., (1971). Control by fire of dwarf mistletoe in black spruce. Journal of Forestry 69, 2830.
Irving W.N., Harington C.R., (1973). Upper Pleistocene radiocarbon-dated artifacts from the northern Yukon. Science 179, 335340.
Johnston W.F., (1971). Broadcast burning slash favors black spruce reproduction on organic soil in Minnesota. Forestry Chronicle 47, 1 3335.
Kilgore B.M., (1972). Impact of prescribed burning on a sequoia-mixed conifer forest. Proc. Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference 345375.
Kilgore B.M., Briggs G.S., (1972). Restoring fire to high elevation forests in California. Journal of Forestry 70, 5 226271.
Komarek E.V. Sr., (1964). The natural history of lightning. Proc. Third Annual Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference Tallahassee, Florida, 139180.
Krebs C.J., (1972). Ecology: The experimental analysis of distribution and abundance. Harper and Row New York 694.
Krefting L.W., (1951). What is the future of the Isle Royale moose herd? Trans. North American Wildlife Conference 16, 461470.
Küchler A.W., (1964). Potential natural vegetation of the conterminous United States. American Geographical Society, Special Publ. 36 116map (in color) and manual.
Lebarron R.K., (1939). The role of forest fires in the reproduction of black spruce. Proceedings of the Minnesota Academy of Science 7, 1014.
Lebarron R.K., Eyre F.H., (1939). The release of seeds from jack pine cones. Journal of Forestry 37, 305309.
Leopold A., (1921). The wilderness and its place in forest recreational policy. Journal of Forestry 19, 718721.
Littlejohn B.M., Pimlott D.H., (1971). Why wilderness?. New Press Toronto, Ontario.
Loucks O.L., (1970). Evolution of diversity, efficiency, and community stability. American Zoologist 10, 1725.
Mac Arthur R.H., (1958). Population ecology of some warblers of northeastern coniferous forests. Ecology 39, 599619.
Marschner F.J., (1930). Original forests of Minnesota. A map compiled from General Land Office survey notes, on file in the U.S. Dept. Agriculture, Washington, D.C., and North Central Forest Experiment Station, St. Paul, Minnesota. 45 × 53 in., in color, unpublished.
Maissurow D.K., (1935). Fire as a necessary factor in the perpetuation of white pine. Journal of Forestry 33, 373378.
Martin P.S., (1973). The discovery of America. Science 179, 969974.
Martin R.J., (1934a). Climatic summary of the United States, Section 46—Southeastern Minnesota. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Weather Bureau 26.
Martin R.J., (1934b). Climatic summary of the United States, Section 44—Northern Minnesota. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Weather Bureau 27.
Maycock P.F., Curtis J.T., (1960). The phytosociology of boreal conifer-hardwood forests of the Great Lakes region. Ecological Monographs 30, 1 135.
Mech L.D., (1970). The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. American Museum of Natural History, Natural History Press Garden City, New York.
Mech L. D., Wolf numbers in the Superior National Forest in Minnesota. In press. U.S. Forest Service, Research Paper.
Mech L.D., Frenzel L.D. Jr., (1971). Ecological studies of the timber wolf in northeastern Minnesota. U.S. Forest Service Research Paper NC-52 62.
Mirov N.T., (1967). The Genus Pinus. Ronald Press New York.
Mutch R.W., (1970). Wildland fires and ecosystems—a hypothesis. Ecology 51, 10461051.
Nute G.L., (1945). The Voyageur's Highway. Minnesota Historical Society St. Paul, Minnesota.
Ohmann L.F., Ream R.R., (1971a). Wilderness ecology: a method of sampling and summarizing data for plant community classification. U.S. Forest Service Research Paper NC-49 14.
Ohmann L.F., Ream R.R., (1971b). Wilderness ecology: virgin plant communities of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. U.S. Forest Service Research Paper NC-63 55.
Peek J.M., (1972). Adaptations to the burn: moose and deer studies. Naturalist (Journal Natural History Society of Minnesota) 23, 3,4 814.
Roe E.I., (1963). Seed stored in cones of some jack pine stands, northern Minnesota. U.S. Forest Service Research Paper LS-1 14.
Rosendahl C.O., (1948). A contribution to the knowledge of the Pleistocene flora of Minnesota. Ecology 29, 284315.
Rowe J.S., (1959). Forest regions of Canada. Canada Dept. of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources, Forestry Branch, Bull. 123 71.
Sando R.W., (1969). Prescribed burning weather in Minnesota. U.S. Forest Service Research Paper NC-28 8.
Sando R.W., Haines D.A., (1972). Fire weather and behavior of the Little Sioux fire. North Central Forest. U. S. Forest Service Research Paper NC-76 6.
Sando R.W., Wick C.H., (1972). A method of evaluating crown fuels in forest stands. North Central Forest. U.S. Forest Service Research Paper NC-84 10.
Scotter G.W., (1971). Wildfires in relation to the habitat of barren-ground caribou in the taiga of northern Canda. Proc. Tenth Annual Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference Fredericton N.B., 85105.
Sims P.K., (1970). Geologic map of Minnesota. Bedrock geology. Minnesota Geological SurveyMisc. map series, Map M-14.
Spurr S.H., (1954). The forests of Itasca in the nineteenth century as related to fire. Ecology 35, 2125.
Svoboda F.J., Gullion G.W., (1972). Preferential use of aspen by ruffed grouse in northern Minnesota. Journal of Wildlife Management 36, 4 11661180.
Swain A.M., (1972). A fire history of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area as recorded in lake sediment. Naturalist (Journal Natural History Society of Minnesota) 23, 3,4 2431.
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture(1941). Climate and Man. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Yearbook 12481941.
Van Raalte G.D., (1972). Do I have a budworm-susceptible forest?. Forestry Chronicle 48, 190192.
Van Wagner C.E., (1966). Three experimental fires in jack pine slash. Canada Department of Forestry, Publ. 1146 22.
Van Wagner C.E., (1971). Fire and red pine. Proc. Tenth Annual Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference Fredericton N.B., 211219.
Vogl R.J., Beck A.M., (1970). Response of white-tailed deer to a Wisconsin wildfire. American Midland Naturalist 84, 269272.
Whittaker R.H., (1970). Communities and Ecosystems. Macmillan New York.
Wright H.E. Jr., (1968). The roles of pine and spruce in the forest history of Minnesota and adjacent areas. Ecology 49, 937955.
Wright H.E. Jr., (1971). Retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet from 14,000 to 9,000 years ago. Quarternary Research 1, 316330.
Wright H.E. Jr., Watts W.A., (1969). Glacial and vegetational history of northeastern Minnesota. Minnesota Geological Survey, Special Publication Series SP-11 59.
Yeatman C.W., (1967). Biogeography of jack pine. Canadian Journal of Botany 45, 22012211.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Quaternary Research
  • ISSN: 0033-5894
  • EISSN: 1096-0287
  • URL: /core/journals/quaternary-research
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 89 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 20th January 2017 - 21st February 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.