Summary: Prescribing Fire in Eastern Oak Forests: Is
Time Running Out?
Marc D. Abrams, School of Forest Resources, Pennsylvania State University, University
Park, PA 16802.
ABSTRACT: Before European settlement, vast areas of the eastern US deciduous forest were dominated
by oak species. Evidence indicates that periodic understory fire was an important ecological factor in the
historical development of oak forests. During European settlement of the late 19th and early 20th century,
much of the eastern United States was impacted by land-clearing, extensive timber harvesting, severe fires,
the chestnut blight, and then fire suppression and intensive deer browsing. These activities had the greatest
negative impact on the once-dominant white oak, while temporarily promoting the expansion of other oaks
such as red oak and chestnut oak. More recently, however, recruitment of all the dominant upland oaks
waned on all but the most xeric sites. Mixed-mesophytic and later successional hardwood species, such as
red maple, sugar maple, black birch, beech, black gum and black cherry, are aggressively replacing oak.
The leaf litter of these replacement species is less flammable and more rapidly mineralized than that of the
upland oaks, reinforcing the lack of fire. The trend toward increases in nonoak tree species will continue
in fire-suppressed forests, rendering them less combustible for forest managers who wish to restore natural
fires regimes. This situation greatly differs from the western United States, where fire suppression during
the 20th century has made a variety of conifer-dominated forests more prone to stand-replacing fire. North.
J. Appl. For. 22(3):190196.
Key Words: Historical ecology, disturbance, succession, fire suppression, oak replacement.