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Scientists to burn Ozark forest to see if fire creates better places for wildlife to live

A forest fire ignited by scientists at Camp Whispering Pines, Louisiana.
C.E. Timothy Paine
Scientists burn a forest as part of restoration efforts at Camp Whispering Pines, Louisiana.

Before the end of March, scientists from Washington University in St. Louis plan to burn parts of an Ozark forest about 30 miles outside of St. Louis. 

Research has shown that repeated burning of forests can help increase the variety of plants that live in a forest. That's particularly the case for plants that live under the forest canopy, said Jonathan Myers, a Wash U biology professor and a member of the Tyson Research Center in Eureka. Having more kinds of  wildflowers can attract native insects that pollinate plants that animals eat.

"When there's more plant diversity in an area, you'll have more native pollinators, which leads to more pollination and therefore, more food sources for animal and often, humans as well," Myers said. 

In early 2017, Jonathan Myers leads a project to burn parts of a forest outside of the Tyson Research Center in Eureka.
Credit Myers Ecology Laboratory
Jonathan Myers is leading a project to burn parts of a forest outside of the Tyson Research Center in Eureka.

Myers, the project's leader, wants to learn more about how plants in the forest respond to repeated burns.

The Tyson grounds, previously owned by the U.S. military, have not been burned for many decades. Wash U acquired the land for research in 1963. 

Fire can also change how large and dense plants grow, and affect how well they perform services that benefit the environment, such as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, said Kim Medley, director of the Tyson Research Center.

Igniting a forest could potentially prevent woody species, such as the invasive bush honeysuckle, from entering a forest. Woody plants can draw ticks, which carry disease. 

"That's important to us, those of us who hike through the woods, get exposed to ticks," Medley said. "We'd want to veer away from those patches of the bush honeysuckle."

The researchers received approximately $250,000 from the National Science Foundationto conduct annual burns until 2020, but Myers hopes to keep burning the forest for much longer than that. He said he would like to see the forest, now densely populated with trees, include more grassy, open areas. Myers thinks that transforming a forest that way could improve recreation.

Kim Medley, director of the Tyson Research Center, collaborates on an early 2017 project to regularly burn an Ozark forest outside the center.
Credit Tyson Research Center
Kim Medley, director of the Tyson Research Center, is collaborating on the project.

For instance, it may attract animals, like quail, that could boost local hunting. TheHa Ha Tonka State Park in central Missouri, which has been burned regularly for the last few decades, is one example of an area that has changed by burns. 

"Reintroducing fires really changes the character and just the beauty and overall look of these landscapes," Myers said. "If you go to Ha Ha Tonka, you can hike through a nice shaded woodland trail and then you can emerge into a more open oak savannah. You have more sunlight and you also have more diverse wildflowers. The combination of those two habitats is a real boon for outdoor recreation."

Follow Eli on Twitter @StoriesByEli.

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.