WCU Students, Faculty Join in Oak Regeneration Project

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire — and, in a recent case, the smoke also was an indication that some Western Carolina University students and faculty were taking part in a forestry experiment to determine if fire can be used as a tool to promote oak regeneration in the Southern Appalachians.

Three students in WCU’s natural resources management program and Peter Bates, associate professor of natural resources management, joined with staff from the NC Forest Service on April 20 to burn a 20-acre tract in the Dick’s Creek community of Jackson County. Their efforts are part of a pilot project that may take 10 years to play itself out, Bates said.

“There has been a lot of interest in the use of fire regarding oak management for a number of years,” he said. “Investigations have been conducted by others in many regions of the eastern United States; however, none of these other studies pertain exactly to the conditions we have here.”

The NC Forest Service needs data that will indicate the effectiveness of using prescribed burns to promote oak regeneration in the mountains, Bates said. Kerry Lathrop, a Forest Service forester who is a recent WCU natural resources management graduate, contacted Bates about designing a study.

The private tract where the April 20 burn took place is owned by a Sylva physician Tom Wilson, Bates said. The land was selectively logged about three years ago.

The students and Bates established 53 plots in the 20-acre tract from which to collect pre-burn data regarding what species, and how many species, were regenerating after the recent logging operation. Now that some of the plots have been burned, the project will involve monitoring the burned and unburned plots to determine how the fire influenced regeneration, Bates said.

Whether or not the burn promoted oak regeneration is an issue that probably won’t be determined for five to 10 years, Bates said. WCU students will be monitoring the plots from year to year. If competition from non-oak species is still too vigorous, the Dick’s Creek site may need to be burned again in the next couple of years, he said.

There are plans to extend the project to other counties in Western North Carolina, Bates said.

WCU students participating in the Dick’s Creek burn were Michael Forbis of Mt. Croghan, SC, Michael Harmon of Forest City and Nick Stowe of Weaverville.

Although oak stands in Western North Carolina are not necessarily “in trouble,” there is evidence that their numbers are declining, Bates said.

“There are a number of possible causes, with fire suppression being one of them,” he said. “Oak often responds better to fire than some faster-growing, competing species. It is hypothesized that fire exclusion allows these other species, such as yellow poplar, black birch and red maple, to overtop oak, and prevent it from becoming a major component of future tree stands.”