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July 2009
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Pennsylvania Passes Prescribed Burning Act

Many ecological communities in Pennsylvania (including native grasslands, oak-hickory forests, and serpentine barrens) depend on periodic fires to maintain their plant community composition and structure.  In an even wider range of habitats, fire can be a tool to help combat invasion by non-native plant species.  But conducting prescribed burns on private land has been a challenge in the state because of liability concerns.  While other regions of the country have embraced the modern use of prescribed fire in managing habitats, Pennsylvania has long been stuck in the Smokey the Bear fire suppression mentality, with only a few organizations conducting regular prescribed burns on private land.

A prescribed burn in progress on a conservation property in New Jersey.  Photo (c) 2009 Matthew Sarver

A prescribed burn in progress on a conservation property in New Jersey. Photo (c) 2009 Matthew Sarver

All that changed on July 14th 2009, when Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell signed House Bill 262, establishing the Prescribed Burning Practices Act.  Introduced by Rep. Gary Haluska, the new law authorizes the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to establish standards for the conduct of prescribed burns in the state.  The state will begin regulating burning practices by certifying burn managers and requiring state approval for burn plans.  In exchange, the law limits the criminal and civil liability of landowners and burn managers, so long as the regulatory process is followed:

No owner of property who contracts with or authorizes a prescribed burn manager to conduct or permit a prescribed burn on the property pursuant to the requirements of this act shall be subject to civil or criminal penalty for damage or injury caused by the fire or resulting smoke, unless negligence is proven.

– PA House Bill 262

The passage of this law is a major step forward in facilitating the use of prescribed fire as a management tool on private conservation lands in the state.  I hope to be able to use fire to manage the grasslands at my own wildlife sanctuary property in southwestern Pennsylvania at some point in the future.

Another exciting step forward is the establishment of The Pennsylvania Prescribed Fire Council, an organization created “to promote the exchange of information, techniques, and experiences of the Pennsylvania prescribed fire community, and to promote public understanding of the importance and benefits of prescribed fire.”

PPFC has named Matt Boss of The Nature Conservancy as the Council’s first Training Coordinator.  You can join the effort to promote prescribed burning in Pennsylvania by becoming a member of PPFC.


14 comments to Pennsylvania Passes Prescribed Burning Act

  • Doug

    The Mayor of Pennsyltuckey got one right! HooRay!

  • Good news. We’ve considered experimenting with prescribed burns on our property, too.

  • Welcome to the blogasphere! Very impressive blog!
    Came here by way of Jeff Gordons blog.
    I have subscribed and hope to see more of your posts!

    Keep it going..
    Great stuff here!

  • Tom

    If this is active farmland, the ground can be tilled instead of burned. All of that grass makes good compost and good topsoil, rich in natural nutrients, and lessens the need for the heavy application of chemical fertilizers.

    I’ve lived near open fields (such as the one pictured) all of my life, and there were never any brush fires (except those started by careless smokers, etc) so what is the point of burning? By burning a field, you destroy the ecosystem of bird nests, small rodents, as well as the food they eat (bugs, spiders, etc) The smoke pollution which burning generates is a public health danger.

    I think field burning should be discontinued. It is an unnecessary and archaic practice.

    • Matthew Sarver

      Tom –

      Your comment about problems associated with smoke from prescribed fires is a valid concern. I should clarify that the new law does not change the fact that all prescribed fires must comply with the existing Air Pollution Control Act that has been on the books in Pennsylvania since 1960. This means that burn plans (which DO take smoke safety issues into consideration) must be reviewed not only by the Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), but also by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) prior to approval.

      Regarding your statement about farmland, I should also clarify that the prescribed burns that I, and others in the conservation community, support are conducted during the course of restoring and/or managing areas of natural habitat, in an effort to improve plant diversity and enhance wildlife habitat. Fire is often the best way to accomplish this. Most of the time, tilling is not a good option for these areas, because tilling tends to destroy any desirable native vegetation present and favors the germination and dominance of annual and perennial weeds and invasive species. Also, in many cases, tilling is impractical because of erosion issues on steep slopes. Shallow discing can in some cases be a good alternative to fire, but only in certain circumstances. Burning is actually a very efficient way to make nutrients available in the soil for uptake by plants.

      You also make a very good point about burns destroying cover for small mammals and insects, as well as winter cover for birds. This is true, and it is precisely because of this fact that any knowledgeable land manager will only burn part of a given area each year, while leaving large areas of unburned habitat intact to serve as refugia for these organisms. This rotational burning system helps to minimize the impact of fire on populations of insects, rodents, etc.

      Finally, while I respect your opinion and you have every right to dislike the practice of burning, I can assure you that there is a large body of science that supports the fact that burning is indeed necessary and vital to maintaining the ecosystem health of many natural communities. I will refer you and others who are interested to Fire, Ecosystems, and People: Threats and Strategies for Global Biodiversity Conservation, published by The Nature Conservancy’s Global Fire Initiative. While the entire publication is informative, take a close look at the figures on pages 7-9, which indicate that the Nearctic region contains 75% fire-dependent ecosystems and that the majority of temperate forests, grasslands, and shrublands are fire-dependent. At the same time, more than 70% of the land area in these regions experiences degraded or very degraded fire regimes. Despite the fact that fire regimes (fire return time) in the northeast have been degraded by our own intervention during the past century, there are still many natural communities that require burning to maintain or enhance their biodiversity.

      You are right to be concerned about the public health and safety considerations associated with prescribed burning. The law that Gov. Rendell recently signed will only help to ensure that burns are conducted safely and in accordance with all necessary precautions.

  • another sue

    I’m also here per Jeff G. As he cites you as a walking encyclopedia of naturalist info, I’d like to ask a question that has nothing to do with your post. (Don’t you just love the way some people want to branch out?) Anyway, if you care to share, do you know what the range/territory is of a raccoon? And welcome! I look forward to learning lots here.

    • another sue – I don’t know the answer to that, and a quick google search reveals that there is considerable variation among individuals and regions, as well as between males and females. When I have a few moments, I’ll look more carefully at the literature and see if I can get you a good answer in a future post.

  • Tom: You are very wrong in your thinking. Ask any wildlife ecologist if prescribed burns have their place and the answer will be a resounding YES! Everyone from “Bubba” Turkey hunters to “Egghead” PhD biologists will tell you that prescribed burns are necessary and good.

    Prescribed burns are NOT an archaic practice, they are needed now more than ever, to help combat invasive species and manage habitat without needing to resort to herbicides, pesticides and other chemicals.

    If one does prescribed burns at the correct time and under the correct conditions, native species are evolved to handle it just fine. In fact, many ecosystems (such as Longleaf Pine forests and multiple kinds of grasslands) REQUIRE periodic burns. Removing fire from the picture is FAR worse for species evolved in concert with it, than a few deaths of individual spiders, caterpillars, etc. every few years.

    And as Matt points out, wise managers never burn more than a part of their holdings at once – this is to allow some creatures to move to escape the fire and to allow others a population reservoir from which to regularly re-expand into the burned areas.

    One also does not burn during bird nesting season (duh). Also: most rodents can escape fire by retreating to their burrows.

    Discing and tilling are NOT GOOD for subterranean wildlife like Eastern Spadefoot Toads, Narrow-mouthed Toads, and a whole host of other ground-dwelling or ground-roosting species.

    I could go on and on, but this seems sufficient…

  • Hello Matthew, thank you for your informative post. I am interested in becoming certified in prescribed burns. I do not know/what who I should contact in order to become certified. Do you have any contact info that could lead me in the right direction?


  • Great Matthew i like your post. keep up the good work.

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