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

  • Miron L. Heinselman (a1)
Abstract
Abstract

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.

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References
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