Current Weather

Prescribed fire brings life to Shawnee National Forest

Fire helps maintain healthy oak forests, according to scientists who study birds, native plants and other wildlife. That’s why Shawnee National Forest uses fire as a tool to restore Southern Illinois forests.

“Fire rejuvenates the forest. It increases nutrient availability, favors some plants over others, and can remove some litter and smaller trees and brush. This lets more sunlight into the forest floor, which is important for oak trees, the dominant tree in Illinois’ forests, and many sun-loving plants,” said Scott Crist, the forest’s expert on prescribed fire. “A more open forest also provides habitat for birds that are considered a priority for conservation.”

Prescribed fire is a planned fire that is overseen by professionals. Fall marks the beginning of the forest’s prescribed burn season, during which professionals plan to burn up to 10,000 acres between now and April 2017. Prescribed fires are performed under specific weather conditions and are designed to mimic fire that historically occurred on the forest.

By bringing fire back to the forest, Shawnee National Forest hopes to:

* Encourage the growth of a diverse array of plant life, including sun-loving plants and grasses.

* Ensure oaks remain the keystone species in our forests. Oaks provide food for about 100 different animals. Using fire to bring light into our forests helps oaks grow. Without fire, shade-tolerant species will take over and eventually replace the oak as the dominant species in our forest.

* Protect human property by reducing the amount of down, dead wood in the forest. That way if a wildfire happens, it would be less intense.

* Perpetuate prairie and savannah remnants found within the forest. These remnant plant communities provide habitat for several early-successional song bird species, such as prairie warblers and red-headed woodpeckers. Maintaining these open woodland conditions with prescribed fire increases biodiversity in both plant and animal species.


Spotlight on Birds

A more open forest is critical to a suite of bird species on the decline. The Central Hardwoods Joint Venture says that long-term fire suppression has caused a significant loss of structural and plant diversity within forests and is a one of the top threats facing birds, particularly those that that depend on grasslands or a more open forest, often called a woodland.

“Our research shows that these rare and declining birds could benefit from having fire back on the forest,” said Larry Heggemann, who coordinates conservation action throughout the eight-state region of the Central Hardwoods. “Fire suppression became popular in the 1950s, and it allowed an unnaturally dense growth of trees to occur in woodlands. This shaded out native grasses and forbs, thereby reducing the insects that were food for many of these birds.”

To learn more about prescribed burning on the Shawnee, please contact Scott Crist at the Forest’s Headquarters Office in Harrisburg, at (618) 253-7114.

About Shawnee National Forest

Administered by the USDA Forest Service, Shawnee National Forest is one of 155 national forests nationwide. As the only national forest in Illinois, the Shawnee offers numerous avenues for connecting with the natural world through its 280,000 acres of varied landscape. Whether your interests lie more in outdoor recreational activities, such as hiking or camping, or include learning about the unique natural and cultural heritage of southern Illinois, the fields, forests and streams of the Shawnee welcome you. To discover more about the Shawnee National Forest, visit Follow us on Twitter at and Facebook via

The U.S. Forest Service is an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a mission of sustaining the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The Forest Service’s Eastern Region includes 20 states in the Midwest and East, stretching from Maine, to Maryland, to Missouri, to Minnesota. There are 17 national forests and one national tallgrass prairie in the Eastern Region. For more information, visit

The U.S. Forest Service manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. Public lands the Forest Service manages contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone. Those same lands provide 20 percent of the nation’s clean water supply, a value estimated at $7.2 billion per year. The agency has either a direct or indirect role in stewardship of about 80 percent of the 850 million forested acres within the U.S., of which 100 million acres are urban forests where most Americans live. For more information, visit