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Fire gives rare plants second chance
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SOCIAL CIRCLE — With the burn season fast approaching, it is worth recounting some of the habitat benefits that recently came to light as a result of prescribed fire.
But first, in late October the Board of Natural Resources adopted a resolution recognizing the ecological and economic importance of prescribed fire for conservation. The measure by the board, which sets policy for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, will help ensure that rare wildlife species all over the state are managed in a way that best aids recovery efforts.
Examples of such species include the discovery in September of a large population of pondberry, a federally endangered wetland shrub. Richard Carter, a botanist at Valdosta State University, found Lindera melissifolia on Mayhaw Wildlife Management Area in Miller County. Without conducting growing or warm-season burns, this plant may have continued to go unnoticed due to the excessive woody shrubs that had become dominant in the area.
September and October also saw the discovery of several populations of endangered American chaffseed  at Doerun Pitcherplant Bog Natural Area near Moultrie by Carter and ecologist Wilson Baker.
Other plants that depend on fire include pitcherplants and the endangered smooth purple coneflower. Populations of smooth purple coneflower exist on only 25 sites in two counties in northeastern Georgia — Habersham and Stephens. Because of the coneflower’s need for sunlight to bloom and produce fruit, regular fires are necessary to prevent shade-producing shrubs and trees from encroaching on the habitat.
Prescribed burning is also a critically important management tool for restoring and maintaining the longleaf pine wiregrass ecosystem, Georgia’s most diverse type of upland habitat.
The DNR along with the Georgia Forestry Commission, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Defense, Georgia Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, Tall Timbers Research Station, and several other public and private organizations are partners in the Georgia Prescribed Fire Council. The council educates the public about the benefits of prescribed burning and encourages its use in forestry, farming and wildlife management.
As a result of one of these partnerships, Rayonier, a global forest products company, received a leadership in conservation award from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative for using prescribed fire to help hairy rattleweed, an endangered plant found only in two Georgia counties.
In addition to benefiting Georgia’s rare plants, a seasonal sweep of fire is considered essential to the management of fire-dependant wildlife including bobwhite quail, eastern wild turkey, songbirds and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
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