New! SVT Trail Guide: 40 Walks West of Boston

Desert Natural Area Pitch Pine-Scrub Oak Barrens Habitat Restoration

Spring was bountiful at the burn area. We were delighted to hear several of our focal species at the site, including whip-poor-will, prairie warbler and indigo bunting. Photo by Dave Longland. We expect our small population of wild lupine to expand with the newly opened habitat areas. Photo by Dave Longland.By selectively cutting trees and re-introducing fire to this ecosystem, we will rejuvenate habitat that supports the native diversity of this landscape.
NOTICE: We are hosting a site walk September 12th, 9-11a.m. Participants will be given an overview of the pitch pine-scrub oak barrens habitat restoration including planned activities for this fall and viewing the success of last year's prescribed fire. Meet at the end of Surrey Lane in Sudbury. (Please do not block driveways or fire hydrants.) Register on-line.
At SVT’s Memorial Forest in Sudbury, which is part of a much larger Desert Natural Area, we have been working with our abutting conservation land owners and the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program (MNHESP) to restore the former expanses of Pitch Pine – Scrub Oak Barrens.  Across the Northeast region of the United States this natural community type has been languishing due to fire suppression, vegetative succession, invasive species, and land development.   This habitat provides homes for several rare species and other species experiencing population declines.  Of note at the Desert Natural Area are whip-poor-wills and wild lupine, which we have observed precipitously declining over the last 20 years.  
By selectively cutting trees and re-introducing fire to this ecosystem, we will rejuvenate habitat that supports the native diversity of this landscape.  Visitors will enjoy a greater diversity of wildlife, have the chance to listen to the enchanting  whip-poor-will, or  see new birds and butterflies.  Visitors will be able to experience an enjoyable walk through a pleasingly diverse array of natural communities.  An added bonus is that our management will help to prevent wild fires that could completely wipe out substantial sections of forest and nearby homes.
Spring was bountiful at the burn area. We were delighted to hear several of our focal species at the site, including whip-poor-will, prairie warbler and indigo bunting.  We were also treated to displays by Amerian woodcock and common nightjar.   We expect our small population of wild lupine to expand with the newly opened habitat areas. We are conducting insect surveys throughout this season; this data will provide a good baseline for evaluation of the habitat restoration, in addition to our vegetation and breeding bird surveys.
Current Project Status
SVT’s forester prepared a Cutting Plan for Phase II of the habitat restoration at SVT’s General Federation of Women’s Clubs of Massachusetts Memorial Forest. This included the marking of trees. Unit A, 15 acres, will be heavily thinned in preparation for a burn that would likely take place within the next few years. Unit B, 40 acres, will be thinned at this time, but no further action will be taken for approximately 10 years. (Please see map of Units A and B.)  Special conditions in the cutting plan included reserving older trees and snags as widllfe habitat, and additional buffers around vernal pools and along Cranberry Brook where invasive plants are a greater threat.
Find out more about the ongoing habitat managment project below. SVT hosted a presentation about the project earlier this year, slides from the presentation can be found at these links:

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation (DCR) Bureau of Forestry has finalized a proposal that is posted on their web site. Their proposal includes thinning of dying red pine stands, improving oak and white pine stands and 27 acres of pitch pine-scrub oak habitat restoration.
Biological monitoring inlcudes an annual breeding bird survey, vegetation monitoring, and insect surveys. Vernal pool monitoring and wildlife observation will also continue. All of these efforts allow us to evaluate the success of the management and adapt as necessary.
Efforts continue to control invasive plants. Professional certified applicators will be hired again to selectively treat invasive plants that cannot be controlled successfully with manual removal. Volunteers continue to conduct manual removal of glossy buckthorn and also assist certified applicators. If you are interested in assisting with this effort, please contact Laura Mattei.
The audio player below features the calls of about a dozen bird species, recorded at the site a month after the burn by Chris Renna.
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). In 2010, Marlborough, Sudbury, MGFWC, and SVT each had Forest Stewardship Plans prepared for their respective properties based on the ecological goals established by the group. In 2014, the DCR prepared a forest stewardship plan proposal. The USFWS ARNWR is in the planning stage for the southern unit of the refuge.
The ecological goals for the Desert Natural Area are:
  • 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.
In additon to these ecological goals, partners intend to maintain high quality passive recreational opportunities, preserve cultural and archeological resources and educate the public about the resources and management of the area.
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. Management will be designed to protect the integrity of these 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
Mapping of invasive plant species and distribution was completed in 2009 and 2010. SVT and the City of Marlborough have contracted with the New England Wild Flower Society (NEWFS) to conduct targeted herbicide treatments to control invasive plants. Use of herbicides is essential for certain species such as Oriental bittersweet, black swallow-wort, phragmites and Japanese knotweed as well as for very large shrubs. We organize volunteers to conduct manual removal of invasive plants where appropriate and to assist certified applicators. These are on-going efforts. 
SVT and the Town of Sudbury are implementing biological control of purple loosestrife in the marshes along Hop Brook. The Galerucella beetle is an insect from Eurasia that feeds exclusively on purple loosestrife. We have released these beetles in the Hop Brook Marsh. For more infrmation on this program, please visit SuAsCo CISMA's site.
Invasive plant control was initially funded by a grant from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation’s (NFWF) Pulling Together Initiative. This work will continue under funding from the Sudbury Foundation and the Foundation for MetroWest.
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 - 100 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, the City of Marlborough, and the DCR 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. 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 is being implemented in phases. In the first phase, SVT and Marlborough implemented a prescribed fire on 14 acres located at the town boundary, on either side of the gas pipeline (trail interstection "E"). The first controlled burn took place on May 7, 2014 under the supervision of Joel Carlson, Northeast Forest & Fire Management, LLC. The burn was preceded by site preparation that included the mowing of shrubs and trees up to 6 inches in dameter.
SVT is initiating the second phase at their Memorial Forest in 2015. “Unit A,” depicted as 5a on the forest stewardship plan, will be heavily mowed and thinned in preparation for a prescribed fire to occur within a few years. “Unit B,” depicted as 4 on the forest stewardship plan, will be thinned only at this time. DCR proposes to conduct thinning of various types on their land in 2015, conditions permitting. Using adaptive management, partners will adjust the phasing and scale of management actions 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. 
SVT and the City of Marlborough collaborated on outreach to local communities. DCR is now joining that collaboration. We will continue to host public forums and site walks. Informational signage will be maintained on site. An informational brochure was produced and distributed to neighbors, other stakeholders and the general public.  
This project has required a concerted fundraising effort. The City of Marlborough received funding from the DCR Community Forestry program to prepare their land for the first phase controlled burn. SVT was granted a contract with the USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Massachusetts Landowner Incentives Program (LIP). The National Fish &Wildlife Foundation’s Pulling-Together Initiative provided funding for initial invasive plant control throughout the Desert Natural Area and for the prescribed fire.
The Sudbury Foundation granted funds for continued restoration work in 2015. Foundation for Metrowest has provided funding to support invasive plant control.
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.