Hoosier National Forest Partners with American Forests for Oak Regeneration

(BEDFORD) – The Hoosier National Forest conducted a 700 acre prescribed fire in Perry County, dubbed the Jeffries Burn, in April 2019. 

Prescribed fire is a fairly typical event on the forest in fall and spring, however, this particular burn was unique.  In fact, 500 acres of it was the very first prescribed fire for oak regeneration that American Forests has ever provided funding for and it was conducted as a national pilot for similar projects in the future. 

The Jeffries Burn was a reforestation cost-share partnership between the USDA Forest Service, a federal agency, and the non-profit American Forests.  Each organization contributed $15,000 to fund personnel, equipment and a helicopter specially equipped for aerial ignition.

Across the Eastern United States, oak forests have sustained us and shaped our way of life. Oaks are not only invaluable trees to wildlife, providing food and shelter to hundreds of species, they are also one of the most valuable woods for making furniture, flooring and other wood products, and support an important slice of the 2.4 million jobs in America’s forest products industry. Oaks are a dominant tree species throughout the eastern forest. 

Historically, they were sustained by natural disturbances and the use of fire by Native Americans.  But changing land uses and fire suppression has made the future of oaks less certain. The survival of oak seedlings is challenged in many places by too many deer feeding on them, repeated pest invasions and lack of fires to reduce competition from other tree species. Active management, such as prescribed fire and timber harvest, mimic natural disturbance and is necessary to spur the next generation of oaks. 

In the Hoosier National Forest, oak seedlings are present, but they often are outcompeted by shade-tolerant species such as maple and beech, and will not become overstory trees without a disturbance mechanism to allow them to receive sufficient sunlight.  Research has shown that prescribed fire is not only highly effective at doing this, but it is also the most cost-effective method to reduce competition.  In a prescribed fire oak seedlings have the competitive advantage of being able to resprout and put energy into shoot growth due to energy held in reserve in their large root systems.     Use of a helicopter for aerial ignition of prescribed fire leads to more intense fire as it can be lit more quickly than fires lit by hand, thus reducing the competing trees more successfully.

American Forests is a steering committee member of the White Oak Initiative. The initiative is working with conservation groups, landowners, the forest products industry, foresters, and government agencies to sustain the benefits that white oak provides society.  American Forests is working with partners like the Independent Stave Company, a family-owned cooperage company crafting whiskey and wine barrels, to establish an Oak Restoration Fund that has been used to implement a suite of restoration projects that sustain the environmental, economic and social benefits provided by oak forests. Projects include tree planting, former mine land restoration, forest health treatments, and promotion of natural regeneration.

Past experience has shown that prescribed burning can release approximately 1,000 trees per acre, so it was estimated as many as 500,000 oak and hickory sprouts may result at this site from this treatment. Data collected three months after the burn resulted in nearly 1.2 million oak and hickory sprouts (see Figure 1).  All of these were sprout origin oak and hickory that appeared to be in competitive positions at this stage post-burn. The Jeffries Burn site is part of an ongoing study by the Hoosier National Forest, U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station, and Purdue University’s Department of Forestry and Natural Resources. The long-term, repeated-measure study is comparing several active management methods (shelterwood harvest, thinning, herbicide treatment and prescribed fire) and their results on oak reproduction. 

SpeciesTrees per acreTotal Sprouts within 500-acre burn area
White Oak1,102551,000
Chestnut Oak9447,000
Scarlet/Black Oak891445,500

Figure 1:  Three months post-burn data was collected from thirty-two 1/750th acre regeneration plots.  Sixteen plots were in areas that were recently harvested and sixteen plots were outside of the harvested areas.  All plots were inside of the Jeffries burn boundary.

Caption:  A prescribed fire is used as a management tool to reduce competition and allow oaks to regenerate in the Hoosier National Forest.

Caption: Oak has resprouted and is thriving just a few months after the prescribed fire.

About American Forests

American Forests inspires and advances the conservation of forests. We do this by restoring threatened forest ecosystems, promoting and expanding urban forests, and increasing understanding of the importance of forests. Founded in 1875, American Forests is the oldest national nonprofit conservation organization in the country and has served as a catalyst for many key milestones in the conservation movement, including the founding of the U.S. Forest Service, the national forest and thousands of forest ecosystem restoration projects and public education efforts. Since 1990, American Forests has planted more than 60 million trees in all 50 states and nearly 50 countries, resulting in cleaner air and drinking water, restored habitat for wildlife and fish, and the removal of millions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

About the USDA Forest Service

The mission of the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. Public lands the Forest Service manages contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone. Those same lands provide 30 percent of the nation’s surface drinking water to cities and rural communities and approximately 66 million Americans rely on drinking water that originated from the National Forest System.  The agency also has either a direct or indirect role in stewardship of about 900 million forested acres within the U.S., of which over 130 million acres are urban forests where most Americans live.)