A recent report critical of modern fire management missed some important factors. We define wildland fire as any non-structural fire occurring in naturally growing vegetation, planned or otherwise. Fires in our forests are completely natural events. In July 2016, a single storm front ignited fires in every New England state. Though it was not discovered until 2017, quite possibly the same storm ignited a fire in the Manuel Correllus State Forest. Under moist conditions, the fire went out after burning only a third of an acre. Under slightly different conditions, that fire could have burned a significantly larger area. All the other fires in the region were aggressively extinguished by firefighters, which is the only sane approach to wildland fires, no matter their causes, in the densely populated Northeast.

But what are the ecological consequences of preventing naturally occurring fires from burning until rain extinguishes them? There are too many species dependent on habitats that are created or maintained by fire to ignore their importance. Dozens of species that benefit from fire have been documented on Martha’s Vineyard.

Whether or not indigenous people used fire to manipulate their environment has been a long-running debate that has yet to yield completely satisfactory answers. Was the pre-European-invasion vegetation of southern New England an unbroken, unaltered forest of large, ancient trees? Probably not. Historical records suggest significant use of fire by many, if not all, Algonquian speaking peoples. A substantial number of the first European settlements in New England were founded on areas cleared of their forests. We don’t know exactly what was growing in the clearings, but we can infer many possibilities. Historical research places the adoption of row-crop agriculture in New England as recently as circa 1400, with European contact coming soon after in the 1500s and permanent settlements in the 1600s. But the absence of agriculture does not preclude the active management of their environment with fire by indigenous people.

Every tool we use to reconstruct the past has inherent limitations. Pollen in mud accumulated in our ponds and wetlands can hint at the dominant plants that existed centuries ago.

Charcoal from the same samples can hint at the possible frequency at which some fires occurred. Pollen is largely carried to the ponds by wind, while charcoal fragments are borne mostly by moving water. Scientists can’t tell if oak pollen in mud came from oak trees or oak shrubs such as our scrub oak (ubiquitous today). So far, samples from pond bottoms cannot tell us whether rare plants such as sandplain gerardia were here or not. There is no evidence of rare birds, beetles and butterflies to be found in pond bottom samples. There is so much uncertainty about the ecological history of our glaciated Northeast that habitat managers, following a three-day session, resigned ourselves to accepting “the sandplain uncertainty principle”.

When all evidence is compiled, it is irrefutable that some areas experienced frequent fires while other areas little or none at all. Some of our most important sites, including Katama, Wasque, Long Point and parts of the Correllus forest, have been managed with both mowers and prescribed fires for 35 years. It is unlikely that any evidence of these practices is accumulating in nearby wetlands.

It’s curious that the study, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, failed to cite some data from a 1996 Ph.D thesis by Andrea Stevens on coastal sandplain grasslands on Martha’s Vineyard. One of her cores, collected at Jane’s Cove in Edgartown, found that nearly half the pollen in the sample came from plants that were not trees at a time prior to European invasion.

One of the most compelling reasons to use fire to manage modern habitats is that it works remarkably well for meeting the habitat needs of many rare and declining species of plants and animals. Sandplain gerardia is booming in areas where prescribed fire has been used frequently for the last 25 years. Research shows that regionally declining prairie warblers, brown thrashers and rare moths and butterflies, among many others, increase when fire is applied liberally and carefully to habitats with long histories of frequent fires such as are found here.

Most publicly-owned forested conservation areas will be managed for long-term forest growth, because future biological diversity conservation requires that we preserve as many large and intact forests as we can put aside. Conversely, the future of many native species will require substantial areas where fire is provided intentionally, because we can’t allow lightning-strike fires to run their natural courses. Habitats 400 years ago were likely complex mosaics. Habitats today and 400 years in the future will still be complex if we continue to do our jobs as conservationists and habitat managers.

An equally compelling reason to manage our most flammable forest types with mowing and prescribed fires is to reduce the substantial risks highly flammable vegetation presents to homes and public safety. Arguments about the historical role of fire on this landscape will do little to dampen the grief suffered should any of our residents or visitors lose their homes to a large fire event.

Contrary to the claims made in the recent paper, land managers are informed by land use history but are not managing to re-create the conditions of any particular time in history. We manage for two mutually beneficial goals, conserving native vegetation communities and their dependent plants and animals, while also improving public safety by reducing the probability of potentially catastrophic wildland fires.

Tim Simmons is a retired restoration ecologist for the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program. He has 35 years of experience studying and managing rare habitats in New England and is the former executive director of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation.