Fire has played an important role in the structure of natural ecosystems throughout North America. As a natural process, fire helps clear away dead and dying plant matter and increases the production of native species that occur in fire prone habitats. It also reduces the invasion of exotic species and the succession to woody species in pitcher plant bogs, pine savannas, coastal prairies, marshes, and other natural plant communities of the southeastern United States.
Today we use fire as a management tool to maintain and restore the ecological structure of natural plant and animal communities. We study the effects of fire on native species to better understand the influence fire has on the structure of their communities and ecosystems.
Historically, human influences have dramatically altered fire effects on the North American landscape. Native Americans used fire to change vegetation patterns prior to European colonization. Following European settlement, fire became viewed as a natural force that should be controlled. Throughout much of our Nation's history, fire has been aggressively suppressed in wildland areas to protect both public and private interests and prevent what was viewed as the destruction of grasslands, forests, and other ecosystems.
Tremendous resources have been expended in attempts to prevent and control wildland fire. Yet despite these massive suppression efforts, the potential for catastrophic wildfire continues to threaten millions of acres of America's wilderness.
The new Federal Wildland Fire Policy recognizes that past practices of aggressive fire suppression have led to conditions of historically unprecedented fuel loads, or burnable plant materials, in many of our Nation's natural areas. This policy calls for the reintroduction of fire on an ecologically significant scale as one of the tools for public land management. Reintroduction of prescribed fire as a land management tool is a proactive means of reducing the threat posed by wildland fire to both people and property.
For the reintroduction of fire to be ecologically effective, though, it must be based on the best available science. Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wetlands Research Center are participating in the effort to better understand the role fires play in natural systems and the effects of fire and fire exclusion on certain species. Fire research at the NWRC focuses primarily on the role of fire on the southeastern Coastal Plain.