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USGS studies wildfire ecology in the western United States

ears," Knick says. "We're looking at centuries if we rely only on natural processes for recovery." Knick's work suggests that preserving intact shrublands through more active fire suppression may be the only way to halt the losses. Restoration practices based on prescribed burning, as have been successfully carried out in forest ecosystems, may not work well in invaded shrublands.

"In forests you can use prescribed burning to remove a lot of the fine fuels, with the expectation that they are going to take several years to grow back," Knick says. "In shrublands dominated by cheatgrass, the cheatgrass will be back next year. It's using a disturbance to try to eliminate a species that likes disturbance."

While interior shrubland ecosystems have only a limited tolerance for fire, a very different kind of fire dynamic exists in the chaparral shrublands of coastal California. Ecologists have long known that chaparral ecosystems burn extensively and often, and much of the dominant vegetation in these systems is highly adapted to a fire-prone environment. Many plants have seeds that require fire to germinate, or need the kind of disturbed habitat fires leave behind in order to grow.

Dr. Jon Keeley, a USGS research ecologist with the Western Ecological Research Center, has studied the physiological adaptations that link the life cycles of chaparral vegetation with the natural regime of frequent brushfires. Upon reproduction, many species drop seeds that remain dormant in the soil "seed bank" until fire creates favorable growth conditions. When the area burns, these seeds receive a number of cues that may cause them to germinate. While seed germination in some species is stimulated by heat, in many others the onset of plant growth requires chemical exposure to combustion products such as charred wood.

Recently Keeley and Dr. C. J. Fotheringham, of California State University, Los Angeles, published a study demonstrating that for many speci
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Contact: Catherine Haecker
catherine_haecker@usgs.gov
707-826-5645
United States Geological Survey
17-Sep-1999


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