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Natural Community Restoration and Management

Bush honeysuckle—the green shrub dominating this hillside in early spring—invades woodlands. ~ photo by Tara Littlefield, KSNPCKentucky is a biologically diverse state. Geology, soils, topography, assemblages of native plants and animals, along with other factors, combine in unique ways that make up natural communities. Forests, wetlands, glades, grasslands and other habitat types can be classified into categories that are known as natural or ecological communities. High quality natural communities are very rare due to widespread human disturbance but remnants do exist. Commission ecologists use the Natural Areas Inventory to survey the state for the remaining high quality natural communities. Areas containing these communities are glimpses into what Kentucky’s landscape looked like before it was settled and developed. When the commission does locate a significant natural area, efforts are made to protect it, usually as a dedicated state nature preserve.

Once a unique natural area is protected as a state nature preserve, the nature preserve manager’s work begins. It is rare to secure a new nature preserve in pristine condition. It is the manager’s job to correct the human influences that have adversely affected a site. Invasive plants, fire suppression and poor land-use practices are some of the issues that must be addressed when planning for site restoration. 

Most natural areas have some level of invasive plant infestation. Next to habitat destruction, invasive plants are the greatest threat to natural communities. Invasive species displace native plants thereby altering the structure and composition of natural areas. This change can be so severe that many native plants and animals can no longer survive. Invasive plants on state nature preserves are controlled by the most effective means known for each species, often a combination of mechanical control (mowing and trimming) and the judicious use of herbicides. Visit our Fact Sheets page for information on identification and management of some of the most commonly observed invasive plants in Kentucky. For more information about invasive plants and to see what others are doing about this growing threat to our native biodiversity, visit the Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council Web site.

Fire suppression enables trees and shrubs to grow into the more open glade and barrens communities, shading out sun loving species. After careful planning, nature preserve staff use prescribed fire to set back the overtaking trees. Controlled fire also benefits many native fire-dependent species.

The restoration of natural communities can take years, and even decades, to achieve. Despite the difficult and sometimes tedious work, restoring natural areas is very rewarding. Preserving remnants of Kentucky’s original landscape and maintaining havens where our natural communities and native species can survive is a crucial part of having healthy ecosystems and preserving our rich natural heritage.

Crewmembers starting prescribed burn at Eastview Barrens SNP. ~ photo by KSNPC staffFire Management on State Nature Preserves:
Effective natural areas management requires use of a diverse array of techniques. One technique used since 1987 by the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission is prescribed fire. Prescribed fire helps to restore or improve the conditions of fire-dependent natural communities within selected state nature preserves. These natural communities often provide habitat for rare, threatened and endangered species.

One factor in the rarity of certain species is the history of fire suppression in the United States since European settlement. A number of rare plants require some sort of disturbance regime (e.g. fire, grazing, flooding) to ensure strong and healthy populations. The reintroduction of fire into a disturbance-dependent community can help control the spread of shade-casting woody plants and invasive exotic species that compete with native plants for sunlight and resources.

Safety is of paramount importance on prescribed burns. Each burn is conducted by trained personnel of the commission’s Nature Preserves and Natural Areas Branch according to a prescription developed by the preserve manager. The prescription states the ecological objectives for the burn and includes a set of parameters for air temperature, wind speed and direction, fuel moisture and relative humidity. If on-site conditions do not meet these parameters, the burn will be rescheduled. 

The area to be burned is called a unit. Prior to the burn date, a unit is carefully prepared by clearing flammable material from its perimeter, creating a firebreak. Specialized equipment such as drip torches, a skid unit fire engine, flame-resistant Nomex coveralls and other safety gear is used by the crew on the fireline. Fires set along the firebreak are closely monitored by the burn crew.

Staffing and weather conditions dictate the number of burns that can be accomplished during the burn season. For maximum impact, the spring prescribed fire season is timed to coincide with leaf break of targeted trees and shrubs. Fall burn season is scheduled following hard frosts that help to dry out the vegetation and improve its flammability.

Recent studies have shown that populations of insects dependent on remnant grassland habitat continue to occur in units burned multiple times. Research conducted at those sites suggests that the populations respond well to a prescribed fire regimen with three-year intervals between burns. Populations of Short’s goldenrod (Solidago shortii), a federally endangered plant, at Blue Licks State Park Nature Preserve have increased due to more sunlight and open space resulting from repeated burning. At Crooked Creek Barrens State Nature Preserve, numbers of the state endangered slender blazing star (Liatris cylindracea) have risen as well.

You can learn more about the use of prescribed fire in Kentucky by watching a video on the Kentucky Prescribed Fire Council's website and YouTube channel.