Desert Natural Area Pitch Pine-Scrub Oak Barrens Habitat Restoration

A view of the restoration area in October of 2015.
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 diminishing 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 walk through a pleasingly diverse array of habitats and be provided the chance to see or hear a greater diversity of wildlife.  An additional benefit of this management is that it will help to prevent wild fires that could wipe out substantial sections of forest and harm nearby homes.

Current Project Status

Since 2013, SVT has been conducting formal surveys each spring for whip-poor-wills.  Unfortunately, for most of those years, we have not been hearing the whip-poor-wills (affectionatley known as "whips").  Have you heard any whip-poor-wills?  If so, please contact Laura Mattei at [email protected].

Due to the dramatic declines in whip sightings, MassWildlife teamed up with the Worcester Polytechnic Institute to study whips.  You can find out more about their study here.  And you can listen to an interview on WGBH here.  

Phase II of our efforts to restore the globally rare Pitch-pine/scrub oak barrens at SVT's Memorial Forest was completed in 2017.  The Phase II management area is located between the old rail line, Hop Brook and Cranberry Brook.  Unit A, 15 acres, was heavily thinned (50%) in preparation for a burn that will take place in approximately three years.  We are observing regeneration and conducting annual vegetation surveys to evaluate conditions.  Unit B, 35 acres, was thinned and no further action will be taken for approximately 10 years or more. (Please see map of Units A and B.)   

Find out more about the ongoing habitat managment project below. Slides from a public presentation two years ago can be found at these links:

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation (DCR) Bureau of Forestry has finalized a prescription that is posted on their web siteTheir proposal includes thinning of dying red pine stands, improving oak and white pine stands and 23 acres of pitch pine-scrub oak habitat restoration.

Over the last seven years, SVT has been removing and treating invasive plants throughout the Memorial Forest.  Many volunteer groups have been manually removing glossy buckthorn.  SVT had hired a contractor to conduct cut and dab treatments of larger invasive shrubs along the Cranberry Brook and Hop Brook corridors.  These efforts will improve plant diversity over time and mitigate the spread of invasive plants to other areas.

The City of Marlborough is focusing on continued invasive plant control before expanding the restoration area on their property. 

Biological monitoring inlcudes an annual breeding bird survey, vegetation monitoring, and insect surveys. Vernal pool monitoring and wildlife observation continue. All of these efforts allow us to evaluate the success of the management and adapt as necessary.
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.

Conservation Significance

This project is part of a larger statewide and regional effort to protect biological diversity.  Below are quotes from some of our partners and other conservation professionals.

“In the impressive protected confluence area of Sudbury, Marlborough, Hudson, and Stow, a legacy of our heritage is being thoughtfully restored by the Sudbury Valley Trustees. The rare pitch pine/scrub oak habitat is reappearing, a local version of Myles Standish State Forest and the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Bulging with uncommon plants and animals on sandy soils, even sustained by occasional fire, the place will highlight a key piece of the region’s history. Like priceless resources in a museum or a town library, this habitat warrants our careful restoration and sustained protection. Imagine an inspirational and educational spot so close to us all!”  - Richard T. T. Forman, SVT Board Member, and editor, Pine Barrens: Ecosystem and Landscape

"Inland Pine Barrens such as those occurring in the Desert Natural Area are globally rare natural communities and represent one of the highest conservation priorities in Massachusetts for preserving regional biodiversity. Unfortunately, the majority of Inland Pine Barren communities that remain in the state are now highly degraded due to nearly a century of fire suppression across the landscape. Considering the rarity of this community-type and its general continued decline across its range, it's very exciting to see the restoration and management efforts that are taking place at The Desert. Opportunities to restore functioning Inland Pine Barren communities have become increasingly rare across the Northeast, making the work undertaken at The Desert an important project in the regional conservation of this important resource." - Chris Buelow, Restoration Ecologist, Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program

"Pitch Pine - Scrub Oak Barrens are an important habitat for many species, including some that depend specifically on barrens habitat.  Sudbury Valley Trustees’ efforts at the Desert Natural Area is highly beneficial for a suite of plants and wildlife including many rare and declining species. This is exactly the kind of stewardship that is needed in Massachusetts if we are to save our natural heritage statewide and regionally.  Much of this habitat has been lost or is highly degraded in the Northeast. Larger and functioning habitats based on natural processes or those that mimic natural processes are more resilient to threats including those from impending climate change. Furthermore, having been involved in similar barrens management across Massachusetts, visitors overwhelmingly enjoy these habitats after restoration finding the open woodlands and small clearings both aesthetically and recreationally interesting." - Russ Hopping, Ecology Program Director, The Trustees 

"SVT's pitch pine-scrub oak restoration project in Memorial Forest will help stem the decline of bird species who are dependent on early successional habitat, such as the Eastern Whip-poor-will, Prairie Warbler, and Brown Thrasher.  Early successional habitat is a natural component of pitch pine-scrub oak forests, and thoughtfully applied forestry and prescribed burns can effectively restore the ecological function in these systems." - Jeff Ritterson, Forest Bird Conservation Fellow, MassAudubon   (Learn more about the State of Birds in Massachusetts.)

"Grassroots Wildlife Conservation, a non-profit dedicated to rare species conservation in Massachusetts, is fully in support of Sudbury Valley Trustees' management plan to thin existing forest in the Desert Natural Area and to maintain the resulting savanna, meadow and scrub habitat with occasional prescribed fires. We know, from our own experience, that non-forested and thinly wooded areas of sandy upland are among the rarest and most critical habitat features in our Massachusetts landscape. Dozens of rare and declining species, from birds such as brown thrasher and blue-winged warbler, to reptiles such as eastern box turtles and black racers, to insects, such as frosted elfin butterflies and twelve-spotted tiger beetles, to rare wildflowers, including New England blazing star and butterfly milkweed, depend on open areas with dry, sandy soil. In the past, frequent natural fires would have maintained many open sandplains in New England. Grassroots Wildlife Conservation commends the SVT for their innovative and well-considered management actions and proposals for greatly boosting the value of the Desert Natural Area to our local biodiversity." - Bryan Windmiller, Executive Director,  Grassroots Wildlife Conservation

Project Description

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 2016, the DCR finalized a forest prescription, including 23 acres targeted for pitch pine-scrub oak barrens restoration. 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 on MGFWC land.

Invasive Species Control

Mapping of invasive plant species and distribution was completed in 2009 and 2010. Since 2011, SVT and the City of Marlborough have used mechanical methods and selective herbicide application to reduce the abundance and extent of 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 regularly organize volunteers to conduct manual removal of invasive plants where appropriate. 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 continued with 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, former Restoration Ecologist with the MNHESP provided extensive technical expertise and guidance over the first seven years of this project.  His successor, Chris Buelow, has offered his assistance as the project progresses. 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 diameter. (Read a Metrowest Daily News article about the burn.)
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.
SVT is initiating the second phase at their Memorial Forest in late fall, 2016 (see map). “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.  

Forest Stewardship Plans for Conservation Lands within the Desert Natural Area:


Photos and Videos

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.
This recording was made by Norm Levey from the burn area on May 28, 2016 and features the calls of eastern whip-poor-wills.



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 and 2016. Foundation for Metrowest has provided funding to support invasive plant control.