Perspectives on using prescribed fire to achieve desired ecosystem conditions
Fire is a potentially powerful tool for achieving desired conditions of forest ecosystems. From an ecological perspective, the use of fire requires affirmative answers to either of the following questions: (1) does it increase ecosystem health and sustainability? and (2) does it preserve or restore unique species or habitats? Health and sustainability can be measured and defined in terms of: (1) rates and pool size of water, carbon, and nutrient cycling; (2) resistance and resilience to low-intensity and -severity disturbance; and (3) minimizing the likelihood of catastrophic disturbances. The departure of current ecosystem conditions from desired ecosystem conditions (defined by structural and functional characteristics) depends on the history of land use and disturbance. The disturbance history also influences the rate of attainment of desired conditions and the magnitude of ecosystem process response to burning. Hence, from an ecosystem perspective, managers must understand the interactions among land use history, current conditions, and desired conditions. These issues are examined using a case study for using prescribed fires in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.