Take a walk in the northwestern portion of our vast Middle Moors property holdings this winter, and you will see that the landscape in this area has been opened up dramatically. This brushcutting management work is being undertaken by Foundation staff and is associated with our Middle Moors Wildland Fire Management Plan. The mutually-compatible goals of this project are to restore and manage rare, ecologically-significant sandplain grassland, heathland and scrub oak barren habitats while also reducing wildfire risk in areas that are adjacent to homes and other public infrastructure. This effort was initiated several years ago by the Foundation’s Board of Trustees and staff and is being implemented over multiple years as funding and equipment resources allow.
The unique landscapes of Nantucket’s conservation properties are valued and enjoyed for many reasons…..but what is not immediately apparent is that the native grasses, shrubs and trees within these areas are composed of highly flammable vegetation. These plants contains volatile oils and resins that are capable of producing extreme fire behavior when burned. The vast majority of these species not only exhibit fire adaptations, but actually require fire or some other type of disturbance for their continued existence. When vegetation such as this is located in close proximity to homes, roads, and utilities, wildfire professionals call it a “Wildland-Urban Interface Risk.” Nantucket’s risk factor is worsened by our 2 ½ hour ferry travel time, which significantly limits the ability of off-island fire fighters and equipment to arrive in time to assist in the event of a catastrophic wild fire.
Several island and regional conservation groups, including the Foundation, conduct prescribed burning, brushcutting, and combinations of these activities to control and reduce shrub cover and promote the occurrence of sandplain grasslands and heathlands and their associated rare species (read more about our prescribed burn management activities in a previous blog post from May, 2014). The brushcutting work that the Foundation is undertaking requires a very hefty piece of highly-specialized equipment called a Fecon mulching tractor, which was purchased in 2012. This tractor has since been put to good use on our Head of the Plains property and in several locations within the Middle Moors, systematically widening out existing roadways or cutting strategic firebreaks through dense brush where no roads or trails exist. These breaks are designed to provide sufficiently large gaps in the vegetation that will slow the progress of wildfire and provide our fire department with a safe location from which to do fire suppression work.
In order to avoid disturbing nesting birds and other wildlife, we limit the majority of our brushcutting efforts to the fall, winter and spring months. During these seasons, the lack of leaves on dense shrubs also affords increased visibility to the tractor operator so that large rocks and other natural obstructions can be avoided. This winter, we are focusing our efforts on completing fire break establishment and road widening within the northwestern section of the Middle Moors in the Shawkemo Hills area, just south of Folger’s Marsh and the Nantucket Shipwreck and Life Saving Museum. This management work will benefit the homes located along the southern side of Polpis Road that border our property, especially the North Pasture Lane subdivision.
Once these breaks are established, they will be regularly maintained by periodic mowing, possibly combined with strategic prescribed fire. Although the initial cut creates a large amount of shredded woody material that gets deposited on the ground as a thick layer of mulch, follow-up treatments will reduce this debris over time. The results of road edge mowing that has been taking place within the Middle Moors area for many years demonstrates that these areas will eventually be colonized by native grass and wildflower species. In fact, some of the largest populations of our state-listed rare plant species, including New England blazing star (Liatris scariosa var. novae-angliae), eastern silvery aster (Symphyotrichum concolor) and sandplain blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium fuscatum) occur along open, sunny road edge habitats in the Middle Moors.
Winter is a great time to get out into the moors and see some of these treated areas first-hand, right after they have been cut……and then come back this summer to see how beautiful these newly-opened landscapes look once the vegetation has greened up! If you like what you see, please consider making a contribution to our dedicated fund that supports this important work.
The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions, and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us! www.nantucketconservation.org