Fire Sparks New Life on an Old Farm

Central Massachusetts Land Trust Helps Wildlife

When the East Quabbin Land Trust bought the 90-acre Frohloff Farm, near Ware, the farm hadn't been managed as farmland in many years. Invasive species like glossy buckthorn, multiflora rose, bittersweet and honeysuckle were taking over.

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Cynthia Henshaw of East Quabbin Land Trust reviews management plan with David Bacon, NRCS soil conservationist. The recently burned area is in the background./D. Petit

“We purchased the property for a variety of reasons,” says Cynthia Henshaw, the land trust's executive director. “We were interested in seeing agriculture continue, but also for wildlife habitat and water supply.

"We’re directly adjacent to the Ware River, and there's priority habitat for wildlife including the wood turtle.”

The first order of business? Develop a forest stewardship plan.

David Bacon, a soil conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, worked with the land trust on financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to implement their forest management plan. A voluntary program, EQIP provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to plan and carry out conservation practices that improve soil, water, plant, animal, air and related natural resources on agricultural land and non-industrial private forestland.

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Fire underway at Frohloff Farm. Scrub oak and native grasses will flourish, benefiting a broad range of wildlife./D. Bacon

The plan for Frohloff Farm called for commonly used conservation practices that would restore native pitch pine, oak savannah bluff, and lowbush blueberry heath ecosystems by clearing land that had been reforested with white pine and gray birch, and by controlling invasive species.

The NRCS “Early Successional Habitat Development” practice involved cutting or mowing existing vegetation so that more sunlight will reach the soil, allowing desirable species to grow without the competition of large shade-producing canopy plants. The “Brush Management” practice removes undesirable invasive species through cutting or spraying, which helps desirable native vegetation to thrive.

A key component of the plan was opening up the forest canopy with fire. So the land trust contracted with the professionals at Northeast Fire and Forest Management to conduct a prescribed burn.

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Native grasses, including little bluestem, quickly sprouted on burned area. Prescribed burning also favors native shrubs such as scrub oak and removes nonnative invasives./D. Carlson

They also enlisted Dave Celino, chief of the Bureau of Forest Fire Control in the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, to help with the burn.

“Fire used to be a natural part of the ecosystem,” explains Celino. “It burns off the mulch layers. The natural grasses respond very favorably to fire. It's an immediate injection of potash into the soil, and it provides openings.”

He adds: “Why do we want to kill a certain amount of trees in the canopy? Well, there's a positive effect: they become wildlife condos. In the fire business, we call them snag trees but they become great wildlife habitat nesting trees.”

One of the principal reasons for burning is to promote the pitch pine and oak communities. Those species evolved with fire, and they do really well under burns because their seeds can fall onto barren, mineral soil, where they can resprout without competition from other trees such as white pine and gray birch.

“Seeing new pitch pines come up, seeing the scrub oak continue, seeing the little bluestem grasses flourish, that's a success because with those plant species will come all the invertebrates and all the animals that use them,” says Henshaw of East Quabbin Land Trust.

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Wood turtles should find more food and better cover following the recent habitat management practices./J. Mays

The land trust owns about a thousand acres in a dozen central Massachusetts communities.

“We work very hard in our planning to promote public use and access, good stewardship and forest management, and agriculture,” says Henshaw.

“Working with NRCS over the years has really made a huge difference. It makes it possible for us to do this kind of work.”

Check out the full story in this video.

And see NRCS’s Fridays on the Farm for another view, including more photos.

The Frohloff Farm, near Ware, remains a working farm. People interested in seeing the results of the Land Trust’s habitat improvements for wildlife can contact Cynthia Henshaw for information on how to visit: chenshaw@eqlt.org or phone 413-477-8229.

East Quabbin Land Trust works to foster the sustainable use of natural and historic resources for the benefit of all generations through the conservation and stewardship of the farmlands, woodlands and waters in central Massachusetts.