Desert Natural Area Pitch Pine-Scrub Oak Barrens Habitat Restoration

Site preparation for the prescribed fire was completed in March.  This included mowing of shrubs and small trees, and girdling of large white pines.The goals of this project are to restore pitch pine-scrub oak barrens habitat, including habitat for rare and declining species; and to educate area residents about the ecology, management, and significance of the barrens ecosystem.We are targeting a controlled burn at this site in the spring of 2014, weather conditions permitting.
Current Project Status
The Sudbury Conservation Commission approved an Amendment to the Order of Conditions so that we may conduct a burn in any season as long as conditions meet the requirements of the burn plan. Additionally, the permite was extended by two additional years. You can read the briefing that we submitted to the commission.
We are targeting a burn this spring. The exact timing is dependent on weather and personnel logistics. We will be notifying a local radio station and newspapers one week in advance of a potential burn date. We will also notify anyone who has requested notification by email. If you would like to be on our notification list, please send an e-mail to Laura Mattei. However, please remember that we can not say with certainty that the burn will occur until the morning of.
The public is not allowed at the burn site on the day of the burn. Please help us to maintain safety and do not attempt to approach or enter the burn site. We will also be posting the site and roping off the area on the morning of the burn.
Site preparation for the prescribed fire was completed in March. This included mowing of shrubs and small trees, and girdling of large white pines. You will notice that there has been quite a bit of vegetation growth since April.
SVT and the City of Marlborough are working with the Kinder Morgan gas pipeline company (formerly Tenneco) to ensure that all precautions are taken to ensure human and environmental health and safety. The Fire Chiefs of Marlborough, Sudbury and Hudson have been provided with copies of the Burn Plans and are invited to participate in the prescribed burn. 
Management Context
The Desert Natural Area, located in Sudbury and Marlborough, is a 900-acre ecosystem complex within a larger area of over 4,000 acres of protected conservation lands. This ecosystem complex contains fire and disturbance-dependent communities of pitch pine-scrub oak barrens in a habitat mosaic with red maple swamps, cold-water streams, and associated wetlands.
In 2009, abutting landowners came together to define overall management goals for the ecosystem complex.  Cooperating landowners include USF&WS Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge (DCR), Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation (DCR), City of Marlborough, Town of Sudbury, Massachusetts General Federation of Women’s Clubs (MGFWC) and Sudbury Valley Trustees (SVT).  Marlborough, Sudbury, MGFWC, and SVT each had Forest Stewardship Plans prepared for their respective properties based on the ecological goals established by the group.  The DCR will not be able to prepare a plan for their property at this time.  The USFWS ARNWR is in the beginning stages of planning for the southern unit of the refuge.
The goals for the Desert Natural Area are:
Goal 1.  Conserve and enhance biological diversity and environmental health.
Objectives:
  • Restore pitch pine-scrub oak barrens
  • Control invasive species
  • Enhance habitats for migratory bird species that are declining in population (such as whip-poor-will, Eastern towhee and brown thrasher)  
  • Maintain rare turtle habitat (Eastern box turtle and wood turtle)
  • Maintain high quality cold water streams (Cranberry Brook and Trout Brook)
  • Maintain vernal pools and upland habitat required by vernal pool breeding amphibians.
Goal 2.  Provide passive recreational opportunities.
  • Maintain trails and signage.
Goal 3.  Preserve cultural and archeological resources.
  • Conduct archeological survey, as resources permit.  
Goal 4.  Educate the public about the biodiversity and cultural resources and management
  • Emphasize creation, restoration and management of habitat 
  • Install interpretive signage
Two coldwater streams, Cranberry and Trout Brooks, run through the Desert Natural Area.  These streams provide high quality habitat to native brook trout and a diversity of macroinvertebrates.  Such high quality streams are uncommon in the Metrowest Boston area.  No major management disturbances will be conducted within the 200 foot buffer of these perennial streams.
There are several vernal pools that provide critical breeding habitat for blue and yellow spotted salamanders, and wood frogs.  These pools are also important to turtles for spring feeding.  SVT initiated long term monitoring of the vernal pool on their property.  Care will be taken with any management actions to assure protection of upland habitat requirements of the vernal pool obligate species.
Recreational access and trail improvements have been on-going for many years by all of the landowners in the Desert.  There is an on-going effort to eliminate illicit off-road vehicle use.  SVT updated a trail map for the entire area.  There are over six miles of trails open for passive recreation.  Most landowners permit hunting and mountain bike riding although these activities are not allowed at SVT and the GFWC.
Invasive Species Control
SVT trained a team of volunteers to map invasive plants throughout the Desert Natural Area.  (The ARNWR had already mapped their section of the Desert, the southern unit of the refuge.)  The mapping was completed in 2009 and 2010 and was followed by manual removal of isolated populations of invasive plants throughout the area.  SVT led several volunteer teams in invasive plant removal work days. The City of Marlborough was able to treat a patch of phragmites found in one of their wetlands.  SVT and the Town of Sudbury released Galerucella beetles for biological control of purple loosestrife in the marshes along Hop Brook.  
Invasive plant control is continuing under a grant from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation’s (NFWF) Pulling Together Initiative.  This is a partnership project with the Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (CISMA).  The New England Wild Flower Society (NEWFS) was hired to selectively treat invasive plants with herbicides.  This is essential for certain species such as Oriental bittersweet, black swallow-wort, phragmites and Japanse knotweed as well as for the larger invasive shrubs.  Volunteers continue to tackle small-medium sized invasive shrubs that can be effectively controlled with manual removal.
Pitch pine-scrub oak barrens restoration
The goals of this project are to restore pitch pine-scrub oak barrens habitat, including habitat for rare and declining species; and to educate area residents about the ecology, management, and significance of the barrens ecosystem. Relict pitch pine-scrub oak barrens are located on SVT, Marlborough, DCR and ARNWR property.  Across the region this natural community type has been languishing due to fire suppression, natural vegetative succession, invasive species, and land development. 
Ideally, this project will restore 50 - 80 acres of an imperiled natural community that is targeted for protection in the Massachusetts Wildlife Action Plan . We anticipate that several rare and declining species of flora and fauna will benefit from habitat restoration including: whip-poor-will, prairie warbler, Eastern towhee, brown thrasher, barrens buckmoth, frosted elfin (butterfly), slender clearwing (moth), purple tiger beetle, wild lupine, and box and wood turtles. This project will also help prevent wildfires that could pose a health and safety risk to nearby residential areas. 
Sudbury Valley Trustees and the City of Marlborough are partnering with the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (MNHESP) to implement this project on their lands.  Tim Simmons, Restoration Ecologist with the MNHESP is providing technical expertise and guidance to the project. Additionally, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) is providing technical and logistical support.   The USFWS hopes to conduct similar management on their property in the near future.
The project will occur in two phases.  A burn plan has been prepared by Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC and was reviewed by MNHESP.  We will be reviewing the plan with local fire departments and conservation commissions.  In the first phase, in the winter of 2012-2013, we will be clearing small trees and brush to prepare a 14-acre site for a prescribed burn.  This site is located at the boundary between SVT and Marlborough lands, on either side of the gas pipeline (trail intersection “E”).  We will conduct a controlled burn at this site in the fall of 2013, weather conditions permitting.   
The second phase will occur on approximately 50 - 70 acres of SVT and City of Marlborough land.  In subsequent years, we will thin the tree canopy and then conduct controlled burns.   The phasing and scale of the project will be adjusted to accommodate practical logistics and to respond to on-the-ground ecological conditions.  The proposed methods have been developed through a 12-year cooperative research and management program conducted by UMASS and MassWildlife. 
Our outreach plan includes education of our local communities about the biodiversity of the site and the management actions that are necessary to achieve our conservation goals. We will provide opportunities for involvement and engagement, and seek local support and voluntary participation. Some management activities such as tree removal and controlled burns may raise concerns.  We will work closely with neighbors to ensure that any issues or concerns that they may have are addressed.  Outreach activities include informative presentations, a public forum, interpretive walks, creating and installing signage.  
Funding
This project has required a concerted fundraising effort.  The City of Marlborough received  funding from the DCR Community Forestry program.   SVT has been granted a contract with the USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Massachusetts Landowner Incentives Program (LIP).  We have received funding from the National Fish &Wildlife Foundation’s Pulling-Together Initiative for invasive plant control throughout the Desert Natural Area, including the use of the prescribed burn to manage new growth of glossy buckthorn.
This project is supported by grants from:
 Forest Stewardship Plans for Conservation Lands within the Desert Natural Area:
See our Prescribed Fire FAQ Page and a list of resources for additional information to learn more information about this project and prescribed fire in the northeast, or download our Prescribed Fire FAQs brochure.