UF/IFAS researchers review alternatives to prescribed burning

Each year, the Florida Forest Service authorizes about 88,000 prescribed burns by landowners and public agencies on more than 2.1 million acres of land. Objectives include promoting healthy regeneration of vegetation, controlling disease among native plants and preventing wildfire.

tree felling
John McUmber using a chainsaw to cut down a dead tree at Ordway-Swisher Biological Station in November. Courtesy of UF/IFAS

But prescribed burning is becoming an increasingly more challenging method of managing forested land for many reasons, among them a rapidly expanding population narrowing the state’s wildland-urban interface. Aware of the obstacles both private individuals and public agencies often face, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) researchers recently set out to review and share surrogate treatments in a new Ask IFAS document.

“We’re not saying, ‘These are better alternatives,’” said Michael Andreu, associate professor in the School of Forest, Fisheries, and Geomatics Sciences. “We’re advocates for using prescribed fire when and where possible. When it’s not possible, land managers need options, because they can’t just do nothing. So, what else can they do?”

The researchers’ review outlines mechanical treatments such as mowing/mulching, timber harvesting, hand felling and roller/drum chopping, which involves pulling a weighted drum with steel blades over the ground. All of these methods alter landscape by rearranging vegetation or fuels. Herbicidal treatments target woody and herbaceous plants that create shade and reduce diversity when not kept in check by fire. And grazing employs four-legged laborers munching their way through forests.

So which option is most feasible?

A cow grazing in Ona, Florida. Courtesy of UF/IFAS

“It depends on the conditions,” Andreu said. “It depends on the objectives, and it depends on how deep your pockets are.”

While “these surrogates tend to produce more consistent, predictable results at a significantly lower liability” than burning, they all possess drawbacks, according to the review. Mechanical methods are more costly than burning, require dry conditions and some can cause erosion. Herbicidal methods generally require application precision, can be expensive, and some chemicals possess the propensity to drift into unintended areas. Grazing requires the installation of infrastructure like fences, and animals may be susceptible to poisonous plants.

Currently, land managers unable to burn rely on a variety of — or a combination of — these other methods, though grazing is probably the least popular because managers seem to associate cows and goats with ranching rather than fire prevention, Andreu said.

“Through this review, we tried to let you, the landowner, make the decision and gave you a sense of what’s out there,” he said.



Megan Winslow
Posted: March 19, 2024

Category: Farm Management, Forests, Horticulture, Pests & Disease, UF/IFAS, UF/IFAS Research
Tags: And Geomatics Sciences, Burn, Chopping, Fire, Fisheries, Florida Forest Service, Grazing, Hand Felling, Herbicide, Institute Of Food And Agricultural Sciences, Land Management, Megan Winslow, Michael Andreu, Mowing, Mulching, Prescribed Burn, Prescribed Fire, School Of Forest, Timber, Timber Harvesting, UF/IFAS, University Of Florida, Wildfire

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