Photo by Elizabeth Hastings

PSU professors researching fire management practices in the White Mountain National Forest

Alison Kaiser


Staff Writer


Plymouth State University’s professors Simon Pendleton and Lisa Doner were approached by colleagues from the White Mountain National Forest sector of the United States Forest Service to conduct research addressing the future of controlled burns and fire management practices in the White Mountains.

Photo by Alison Kaiser

The project, titled ‘Assessing fire-dependency in natural red pine forests of the Northeast’, is set to take place over the next three years and is funded by a grant of $308,891 from the Northeastern States Research Cooperative.

The grant funding allows Pendleton, Doner, and co-principal investigator Chris Guiterman of the National Centers for Environmental Information to employ three to nine undergraduate students over the course of the three-year project, an aspect Pendleton looks forward to. “One thing that all of us get really excited about is the involvement of students. To be able to get them out into the field and get their hands into the mud, literally” he said.
The project was designed for student involvement and will include participation in all aspects including fieldwork, laboratory analysis, and data interpretation. This will give students an opportunity to engage in real-world application of the curriculum, while also making a significant impact on the forests in their backyard.
The main research objective is to determine what role past fire activity and consequent fire suppression have played in the composition of our forest ecosystems, and what role it should play in the future.

The White Mountain National Forest experienced a large number of incidental wildfires during the colonial and industrial eras, but there has been a significant decrease in the amount and intensity of wildfires in New Hampshire since the early 1900s. This has affected the natural tree composition of the landscape and leaves stewards with two competing approaches: to continue to suppress fire in hopes of allowing the forest to return to its pre-disturbed state or to use controlled burns to nourish the forest and maintain what is left of the original fire-adapted trees. The research hopes to reveal which of these ideas encourages the health of the forest and the protection of biodiversity.

To answer these exploratory questions, the researchers aim to reconstruct the fire history of the area using multiple methods. Sediment cores will be taken from several ponds or bogs west of North Conway and Jackson, New Hampshire. These cores contain charcoal that can potentially be used to see fire frequency from eleven to twelve thousand years ago when the climate was relatively warm. The ponds were also chosen due to their proximity to stands of red pine.

Guiterman will be using fire scars on red pine tree rings to provide a precise history of when and where fires have occurred over the past few hundred years, and how the trees are responding. Combining these two records, as well as analysis of pollen in charcoal sediment by Doner will hopefully fill in the gaps of prior knowledge and paint a cohesive picture of fire behavior and the pre-colonial fire regime.

New Hampshire’s climate future is uncertain, so it is important that the research considers multiple climate scenarios. This research will provide a much-needed model of the past that can be used by stakeholders to make informed decisions. Understanding the climate is key to creating future forest management plans. In the words of Dr. Doner, “We don’t want to be doing the wrong thing for what we think are the right reasons.”

Stakeholders and involved partners include representatives from the United States Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy of New Hampshire, a representative of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, and a representative of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People.