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The division's stewardship philosophy is based on its Natural Resource Management Policy, which was developed in 1995 is based on the policies of the National Park Service. The division's stewardship goal is to manage the natural and cultural resources of the parks in a systematic, consistent, and professional manner that places resource protection above exploitation.
This policy directs that division managers will work to maintain all of the components and processes of naturally evolving ecosystems. This means that whenever possible, park resources will be managed by allowing them to evolve through natural processes with minimal influence from human activities. Park managers do not attempt to preserve individual species but instead manage from the ecosystem level. When intervention is necessary to compensate for the disruption of natural processes, rare species protection, or cultural resources protection, secondary impacts to park resources are minimized as much as possible.
The role of fire throughout North Carolina's ecosystems over the last 10,000 years has been well documented. These fires were caused primarily by lightning, and fire history studies have established a long record of repeated fires of varying scale and intensity. Ecosystems that have been exposed to such fires typically exhibit high biodiversity, and many of these species are known to be dependent on fire for survival and reproduction. North Carolina is known to support a wide variety of plant and animal species that respond vigorously to fire. In fact, approximately 65% of the nearly 700 rare plant species that occur in North Carolina are known to be fire-dependent. Common plant adaptations that allow for survival in the face of repeated fires include thick bark and leaves; resprouting via underground stems; long-lived seed banks in the soil; and cones that open only in the event of extreme fires.
Many state parks support natural communities that are dependent on frequent fire for maintenance and propagation. In the long-term absence of fire, these natural communities will be altered so that they no longer support their characteristic native species. Because of decades of complete fire suppression, many fire-adapted ecosystems in state parks have been degraded. One result of this is that both common and rare fire-dependent species have been lost. Another result is that heavy concentrations of woody fuels have accumulated, and unusually intense fires can occur.
A well-planned fire management program is critical for properly managing these ecosystems, and the division manages these resources through the application of prescribed fire. Under this program, fires are deliberately ignited under carefully prescribed conditions using techniques that will achieve specific management goals. The primary long-term goals in of the fire management program are to restore and maintain high-quality examples of fire-adapted ecosystems across the state parks system. Prescribed fires are also used to reduce hazardous fuel levels, enhance habitat for rare species, and control or eliminate non-native species.
To help achieve these goals, the Natural Resources Program has prepared the division's fire management guidelines and has developed specific, ecologically-based fire management plans for over 20 parks. The program also coordinates fire management training for division staff, including workshops on fire management and fire ecology.
Most of the division's fire management occurs in the coastal plain; however, additional fire-adapted areas continue to be identified, and the division has expanded its fire management program to the Piedmont and mountain regions.
Prescribed burns achieve the same effects as natural fires. Below are some of the benefits of prescribed burns:
By burning dead leaves on the forest floor, small twigs and branches, pine needles, and grasses, the prescribed burn returns nutrients to the soil. This natural fertilizer is particularly important in replenishing areas that were once used as farmland, where decades ago crops depleted the nutrients from the soil.
Prescribed burns also control competing plants that inhibit the growth of native plants. For example, historical records noted that a rare type of sumac grew on areas of what is now William B. Umstead State Park. This sumac thrived where frequent natural fires occurred because the fires controlled plants that would have shaded the sumac and inhibited its growth. Now, the sumac is all but gone from park property because humans have prevented natural fires for so long. Only recently was the sumac replanted in the park.
Some grasses and berry species need open space for germination. Such open space can be created by fire. Grasses and berry species are a popular food source for animals. When these plants are more abundant, they support more animals and a greater diversity of animals.
In addition, prescribed burns reduce the chance of an uncontrollable forest fire. Prescribed fires burn “forest fuels”—natural litter such as dead leaves, fallen tree branches and pine needles—under controlled circumstances. If these fuels are allowed to build up, they can make a natural fire more difficult to contain.
The first step is to identify the park's fire-adapted natural community types and to document their fire history and fire ecology. Once the areas to be burned have been identified, then each park's fire management plan outlines specific short- and long-term fire management goals. This helps rangers determine when and how frequently certain areas are burned. Every area to be burned is given its own “prescription” that establishes the weather conditions under which that area can—and cannot—be burned.
On the day of the burn, rangers evaluate the temperature, humidity, wind direction and speed, and other factors that might influence the fire. If weather conditions are favorable, the rangers set a small fire, testing an area of the land to be burned.
After studying how the fire reacts, and determining that the area can be burned safely, rangers continue with the prescribed burn.
Once the burn is complete, rangers patrol the entire unit and conduct mop up operations to ensure that the fire is out.
Pictured at right is what the forest floor looks like after a prescribed burn.
Although the landscape may look dramatically different right after the fire, the post-fire response is usually very rapid. Within days of the fire, grasses and other herbaceous species will resprout from their roots. Seeds that have been stimulated by the heat will germinate, and all of the plant species will benefit from the ash, which contains recycled nutrients and acts as a fertilizer. Canopy tree will usually be unaffected except in cases of extremely hot fire.
Most animal species are also well-adapted to fire. Mammals and birds will simply leave during the fire and then return. Most reptiles and amphibians will survive by leaving the area or moving into dens. After the fire, plant abundance and diversity usually increase, causing increased animal diversity. Bird diversity usually increases in response to increased insect populations that arrive to feed on trees.
Exotic plants are those that have been introduced, either intentionally or by accident, into areas outside their native range. Exotic plant species often out-compete native species because they are aggressive in their growth habits, produce more seeds that last longer in the soil, or have no natural predators or diseases in the ecosystem that they are invading. Some of these exotic plant species can severely affect the natural resources of the parks. The division's long-range goal is to control and/or eliminate those exotic species that present the greatest threats to the native flora.
To address this problem, the division has produced exotic plant guidelines to provide technical information for the successful control of invasive exotic plant species. These guidelines cover the control of 14 common invasive, exotic plant species currently found in the parks, a method to set priorities for control and a method to assess and document control efforts.
During the summer of 1999, the division authorized the first inventory of exotic plants throughout the state parks system.
This survey documented the presence and extent of invasive exotics in every park unit. The degree of infestation and difficulty of control are widely variable, and the Natural Resources Program has begun developing park-specific control plans. Under these plans, each parkís invasive species are prioritized and species-specific control and monitoring protocols are developed. The Natural Resources Program has also developed invasive species workshops that are conducted across the system.
Although all of the state parks have some degree of infestation by exotic plants, most of these plants are at the stage where complete eradication would be possible if adequate resources were available. Currently, the use of herbicides is the most effective method to control most exotic plants; however, herbicides are expensive. The next step will be to prepare specific exotic plant control plans for individual parks, including cost estimates for recommended control measures.
It is the policy of the state parks system to use only native plants for landscaping and restoration projects. The purpose of this policy is to showcase the natural diversity of plants found in North Carolina and to avoid the inadvertent introduction of invasive, exotic plant species to the parks. Planting guidelines were developed to provide a list of common plant species that in the proper region and habitat are appropriate for use in our parks.
The combination of wild animals and humans in state parks can frequently cause problems, particularly when a visitor's actions cause an animal to alter its normal behavior and become a nuisance or danger to park visitors. Frequently, well-meaning park visitors fail to recognize the causes, symptoms, or results of nuisance animals. Many potentially harmful situations occur because visitors either deliberately fail to leave wildlife alone or unwittingly contribute to the problem by failing to understand the problems associated with feeding, improper food storage in campsites, etc. Problems also arise if visitors deliberately or unwittingly introduce exotic animal species into parks that may compete with native species.
To address these situations, the Natural Resources Program program has also developed nuisance animal management guidelines, which emphasize ways to avoid nuisance situations. program has also developed guidelines for the management of nonnative animal species, such as feral hogs. These guidelines were developed in consultation with resource management staff at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, and the North Carolina State Veterinarianís Office.
In addition to these guidelines, the Natural Resources Program has developed protocols for the production and installation of animal-proof trash cans and food storage lockers in all park visitor use areas and campgrounds.