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Project ID: 06-2-1-35

Year: 2006

Date Started: 07/28/2006

Date Completed: 03/31/2010

Title: Do Annual Prescribed Fires Enhance or Slow the Loss of Coastal Marsh Habitat at Blackwater NWR and Fishing Bay WMA?

Project Proposal Abstract: Land managers at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (BNWR) and Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area (FBWMA) have a management dilemma. They manage ~ 11,000 acres of tidal marsh with annual prescribed fires to reduce hazardous fuel conditions, promote rare/endangered species, and enhance habitat for wildlife. Yet, using fire to improve the wildlife value of the marsh habitats may be contributing to their destruction. More than 8,000 acres of tidal marshes at BNWR and FBWMA have been lost because rates of soil organic matter accumulation are inadequate to offset sea-level rise. Fire affects the accumulation of plant organic matter in the soil, but the magnitude and direction (i.e., positive or negative) of its effects are not fully known. Understanding the relationship between fire, organic matter accumulation, and marsh sustainability is important in recognizing the limits and consequences of fire as a management tool in these coastal marshes. This proposed research addresses the following data gap identified by the land managers: Does the annual prescribed fire regime adversely or positively affect marsh elevation, and does it contribute to marsh loss at BNWR? We will experimentally determine how annual prescribed burns affect soil organic matter accumulation and surface elevation trends in the marshes. Accretionary processes will be measured in marshes receiving no burns and annual burns using the surface elevation table ? marker horizon method and a suite of soil and plant variable measurements. Our data will be used to identify key processes controlling elevation, and how annual burning affects these processes, and, ultimately, marsh elevation change. Also, we will assess the risk that annual burns pose to long-term marsh sustainability by integrating the accretionary processes data into an inundation model that forecasts the fate of the marsh to sea-level rise. This modeling framework will allow us to forecast ecosystem change and provide important feedback to managers; enabling adaptive shifts in burn strategies for the sustainable management of the marshes. Lastly, we will assess the effect of fire return frequency (annual, 3-5 years, and 7-10 years) on marsh fuel loads, because the managers will need to understand the fuel load and potential wildfire consequences for switching to a less frequent burn schedule if annual burns prove to be detrimental to marsh sustainability. Knowledge provided by this study will reduce the managers' uncertainty regarding the impacts of their prescribed burn schedule on marsh stability and will have direct implications for the further application of the Fire Management Plan at BNWR and the trade-offs between fuel reduction and marsh sustainability. Furthermore, improving our understanding of marsh elevation dynamics will lead to more effective management of the 1.2 million hectares of estuarine and 600,00 hectares of marine wetland habitat in the National Wildlife Refuge system.

Principal Investigator: Donald R. Cahoon

Agency/Organization: USGS-Geological Survey

Branch or Dept: Patuxent Wildlife Research Center-Laurel

Other Project Collaborators




Branch or Dept

Co-Principal Investigator

Dixie L. Birch

FWS-Fish and Wildlife Service

Chesapeake Marshlands NWRC

Co-Principal Investigator

Glenn Guntenspergen

USGS-Geological Survey

Patuxent Wildlife Research Center-Laurel

Federal Cooperator

Donald R. Cahoon

USGS-Geological Survey

Patuxent Wildlife Research Center-Laurel

Project Locations

Fire Science Exchange Network


There are no project locations identified for this project.

Project Deliverables

Final Report view or print

("Results presented in JFSP Final Reports may not have been peer-reviewed and should be interpreted as tentative until published in a peer-reviewed source.")

  ID Type Title
view or print   1166 Photo Photo of Jim Lynch and Glenn Guntenspergen taking post-burn readings at one of our 36 field plots in March 2007
view or print   1168 Photo Photo of Jim Lynch taking the baseline reading from one of our 36 field plots in November 2006
view or print   1169 Photo Photo of prescribed marsh burn at Blackwater NWR
view or print   1170 Photo Photo of Patrick Brennand collecting a post-burn accretion core using our cryogenic coring apparatus. The photo also shows our other field sampling gear (e.g., the rod SET leaning against the platform, and the bucket of soil probes for measuring various soil parameters.
view or print   7127 Photo Photo of Schoenoplectus americanus (Olney three-square) marsh in the vicinity of one of our 36 field plots at the peak of the growing season.
  go to website 7017 Website Marsh Elevation Response to Prescribed Burning at Blackwater NWR
view or print   7018 Invited Paper/Presentation Marsh Elevation Response to Prescribed Burning at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Supporting Documents

The following supporting documents are available for this project.

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