One of the frequent calls we get at the Foundation’s office during the fall, winter and early spring involves questions about the firebreak management work we are doing on our properties. Why are we cutting down the shrubs? Where will we be cutting next? Will we eventually be cutting down everything? The level of interest about this work from our neighbors, members and the general public is a testament to how much people care about Nantucket’s conservation lands. Although this topic has been covered in previous blog posts (see https://ncfscience.org/2018/05/03/whats-going-on-with-all-the-brushcutting-in-the-tom-nevers-area-wildfire-risk-reduction-and-restoring-habitat-for-rare-plants-and-animals/), it is a subject worth revisiting to provide updated information and answers to these common inquiries.
Why are we cutting down the shrubs?
This work is being done as part of the Foundation’s Wildland Fire Risk Management Program. This project has two mutually-compatible goals: 1) reduce the risk of wildfire impacting homes, facilities and public infrastructure on Nantucket, and 2) conduct management to benefit rare species and plant communities, including sandplain grasslands, heathlands and scrub oak barrens. The Wildland Fire Risk Management Program was first adopted in 2011 by our Board of Trustees. Since then, our staff has developed plans, received permitting and implemented management in several high-risk areas around the island, including Trots Hills, Head of the Plains, the Middle Moors and South Pastures (the area between Nantucket Memorial Airport and Tom Nevers).
Reducing Wildfire Risk: The unique landscapes of Nantucket’s conservation properties are surrounded by homes, roads and power lines. People living adjacent to undeveloped open space are lucky to enjoy these beautiful properties just outside their back door, but – as illustrated by last year’s tragic events in California – these neighborhoods are at risk when they occur in close proximity to a landscape adapted to fire. Many of the native plant species 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. Many of these species actually require fire or some other type of disturbance for their continued existence. Fire ecologists consider places where structures and other human development intermingle with undeveloped land containing dense, flammable vegetation to be high risk “Wildland Urban Interface” zones. There are many places that fit these criteria on the island. To make matters worse from a wildfire risk perspective, the use of traditional wooden building materials is required by our Historic District Commission. 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 in the event of a wildfire. Management of vegetation in the Wildland Urban Interface is key for both preventing wildfires and controlling wildfires if they do occur.
Benefitting Rare Species and Plant Communities: Nantucket’s fire-dependent habitats are designated as uncommon and exemplary “Priority Natural Communities” by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program (NH&ESP) because of the high concentrations of rare species that they contain. Restoring, maintaining, and conserving these ecologically-significant areas are high-priority goals for the Foundation. The challenge we face as land managers is to figure out how to best reduce “fuel loads” (the amount of flammable material within a defined space) within the Wildland-Urban Interface adjacent to our conservation lands while also complementing our ecological goals. Fortunately, this is not as challenging as it sounds. Brushcutting, tree removal, and/or prescribed burning are all management practices that reduce fire hazard and also promote habitat conditions for the rare species associated with our grasslands, heathlands and shrublands. 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 detailed fire management plans to be developed, submitted and approved by the NH&ESP.
Where will we be cutting next?
Since the initiation of this program, we have systematically widened out existing roadways or cut strategic firebreaks through dense brush on our Head of the Plains, Trots Hills and Middle Moors properties. These firebreaks are being maintained at least annually with follow-up mowing. This winter or at the beginning of next winter, we hope to complete work within the South Pastures area – the final high-risk area identified by our approved fire management plans. The Foundation owns over 1,770 contiguous acres of tall, dense scrub oak immediately downwind of dense residential development along the western side of Tom Nevers Road, making these homes at high risk in the event of a wildfire. Management work being undertaken in this area includes establishing new firebreaks immediately adjacent to densely developed neighborhoods and reducing the height of the vegetation along the edges of Russell Way and New South Roads. In order to avoid disturbing nesting birds and other wildlife, we limit our brushcutting efforts to the late fall, winter and early 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 seen and avoided.
Will we eventually be cutting down everything?
No! Once we have established the recommended firebreaks in the South Pastures area, all of the initial, approved work associated with this program will be completed. Some additional cutting may take place adjacent to treated areas to reduce the straight lines created by the initial brushcutting and create a more natural transition between managed and unmanaged areas.
Established breaks will be regularly maintained by periodic mowing going forward. Although the initial cut creates a large amount of shredded woody material that gets deposited on the ground as a thick layer of mulch, these newly-opened landscapes will “green up” in the summer. This woody debris will be reduced over time with follow-up treatments. 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 maintained road edge habitats.
We invite you to get out and enjoy the Foundation’s properties 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 via our website (see link below) 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