Burning for conservation values: should the goal be to mimic a natural fire regime?
Managers are often asked to include conservation values in forest management plans. In the upland coastal plain of the southeastern United States, fire is an important natural process and a vital land management tool. Many native ecosystems are dependent on frequent burns. It is often suggested that mimicking a natural fire regime is the best way to improve and maintain conservation values in many forest types. Unfortunately, fire return interval has been the primary component of a fire regime historically considered, with seasonality of fire generally playing a lesser role. Here, we review what constitutes a fire regime and present data from two long-term burn treatments based in naturally regenerated loblolly-shortleaf pine (Pinus taeda L. - P. echinata Mill.) and longleaf pine (P. palustris Mill.). The information is used to: (1) consider how fire return interval and/or season of burn influence stand structure, and (2) determine if applying one or both of these components of a natural fire regime is likely to meet desired outcomes for conservation concerns. Data from the long-term studies indicate that limiting consideration to frequency is unlikely to produce desired results. In addition, the combination of natural frequency and season of burn may not always be successful. A more productive goal is to mimic long-term outcomes of natural fire regimes. In the modern landscape this will likely require innovative uses of prescribed fire and, at times, supplemental treatments to meet the needs of conservation concerns in upland coastal plain pine forests.