NCF is excited about initiating vegetation management this winter associated with our Wildfire Risk Reduction Program. Since 2011, our NCF’s Board of Trustees and science staff have been developing plans to strategically apply brushcutting, prescribed fire and pine tree removal on our properties, with the concurrent goals of reducing the risk of wildfire and benefiting rare species and plant communities. This project has been in the works for several years, and we are now finally at the point of being able to start on-the-ground treatments.
Nantucket is blessed with over 45% of the island protected as undeveloped open space (NCF alone owns approximately 30% of these areas). These areas of open space range in size from less than 10 acres to ~ 3,000 acres, and are surrounded by homes, roads, power lines, and other public infrastructure. People living adjacent to protected lands are lucky enough to enjoy beautiful landscapes just outside their back door, but fire ecologists categorize these areas as high risk “Wildland-Urban Interface” zones – a fancy phrase for areas where structures and other human development intermingle with undeveloped land containing dense, flammable vegetation.
Many of the plants here on Nantucket contain high levels of oils and resins in their stems, twigs and leaves, which ignite easily, burn intensely and can spread fire rapidly. Needless to say, from a public safety perspective, this can problematic when this type of vegetation is in close proximity to people and buildings! Nantucket experienced two severe wildfire events in the 1900’s: in July 1949, approximately 1,300 acres burned adjacent to the Nantucket Memorial Airport and the State Forest and in August 1929, a fire engulfed an area exceeding 6,000 acres stretching from Madequecham to Quaise. Since then, the vegetation on the island has been steadily growing taller and denser (because there are no more sheep out grazing on the moors), and the number of homes built adjacent to undeveloped conservation lands has been steadily increasing. Further increasing our risk is Nantucket’s 2 ½ hour car ferry travel time, which limits the ability of off-island fire departments to promptly provide mutual aid to our public safety folks in the event of a wildfire.
So yes, this is a scary situation. The “Catch 22” is that the vegetation communities on Nantucket are highly flammable for a reason: they are fire adapted. This means that they have not only evolved adaptations that provide protection against the effects of wildfire, but they rely on fire to strengthen and enhance their chances of survival. These fire-dependent habitats are designated as uncommon and exemplary “Priority Natural Communities” by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program because of the high concentrations of rare species that they contain. Restoring, maintaining, and conserving these ecologically-significant areas are high-priority goals for NCF.
So the challenge we face as land managers is to figure out how to best reduce the “fuel loads” (another fancy phrase for the amount of flammable material present within a defined space) to increase public safety within the Wildland-Urban Interface on our conservation lands, while also complementing our ecological goals. Fortunately, this is not as challenging as it sounds. Brushcutting, prescribed burning and pine tree removal are all management practices that reduce fire hazard and also promote habitat conditions for rare species associated with our grasslands, heathlands and shrublands. But these activities need to be planned out carefully so that they do not impact sensitive resources, such as nesting birds, rare species and wetlands. They also require permitting and approval from various agencies. This fall, we received approval from the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program for the management work we are proposing on some of our properties in the western portion of the island, and are in the process of finalizing and submitting plans for the Middle Moors area.
Which leads us to the subject of the brushcutting along the Madaket bike path: since the beginning of last summer, we have been undertaking an extensive public education and fundraising campaign to increase awareness of these issues and raise funding for the work. Thanks to some very generous contributions, we recently purchased a Fecon mulching mower that is capable of brushcutting very dense and tall vegetation. We are starting work on our Trott’s Hills property, adjacent to the Madaket Landfill. Why here? Well, the dump has accidentally caught fire on multiple occasions in the past, and the prevailing winds on Nantucket tend to blow from the southwest. Trott’s Hills is located northeast of the dump, and further downwind are homes, power lines and dense vegetation along Madaket and Eel Point Roads….so this seemed like a good place to begin management and test out our new equipment.
So far, the results have been very impressive. What was once a dense, tall, impenetrable understory of shrubs underneath a grove of pitch pines has now been opened up to a savannah-like vista. The machine is capable of grinding the above ground vegetation down to mulch, which will break down over time. Although it might look a bit ugly over the course of the winter, grasses and shrub re-sprouts will quickly green up the area in the spring. One surprise that our machine operator encountered was a line of huge boulders placed in a row that have been overgrown with vegetation for many years. If anyone has an idea about why they are there and where they came from, we would love to hear from you. As this work progresses, we will likely uncover many additional remnants of Nantucket’s past land use history, so stay tuned for further details!