FAIRVIEW TOWNSHIP — Brian Williamson knelt down on a rock outcrop in the middle of State Game Lands 207 and scrutinized the cracks for a rare, delicate plant.
After a few minutes of searching, Williamson, who is a field forester for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, found clusters of three-toothed cinquefoil sprouting from a thin layer of soil on the rock. The diminutive plant stands just a few inches tall, but it’s listed as an endangered species in the state.
And it’s not alone.
Nearby, clumps of low serviceberry grew among the more dominant blueberry bushes — another state-listed endangered species — and Williamson said Bicknell’s sedge (endangered), Susquehanna sand cherry (endangered) and blue lupine (rare) are also found among the rock outcrops that dot SGL 207.
All five plant species are part of a habitat that consists of rocky outcrops with acidic soils, and the small, open areas are interspersed throughout the SGL 207.
But the unique habitats are shrinking, increasing the threat to the rare plants that inhabit the locations. To protect the rocky outcrops from encroaching vegetation and, hopefully, help the rare plants, the PGC and state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources have a plan.
“There’s a lot of encroaching vegetation, such as oaks, on these areas. Oaks are desirable, but they’re closing in on these rock outcrops,” Williamson said.
The oaks, and other tree species, are over-taking the open, rocky areas, shading out the plants below and absorbing pressure nutrients from the thin layer of soil. Conducting a timber harvest to open up the area is difficult, Williamson said, because of the potential presence of the endangered Indiana bat, which limits the time of year when trees can be cut. Access is an additional challenge, as the only road is owned by Rice and Fairview townships.
“Because this is a tough place to timber. We looked at other management options for this game lands and came up with fire,” Williamson said.
While it may seem like a destructive step, it turns out the rare plants on the rocky outcrops may actually benefit from a controlled burn.
Next spring, the PGC and DCNR will conduct a controlled burn on three sections of Game Lands 207, totalling 325 acres in Rice, Fairview and Hanover townships. The hope is, according to Williamson, that fire will open up the rock outcrops and allow the rare plants time to re-sprout and establish before the oaks begin to regenerate. The controlled burn will also produce more succulent re-growth in the surrounding forest, which Williamson hopes will disperse pressure from deer away from the rare plants.
“We have an opportunity here to use fire, and it’s kind of an experiment to find out how these plant species will respond,” Williamson said.
Still, the potential benefits don’t end with the rocky outcrops and rare plants.
Ideally, Williamson hopes the use of fire will create a habitat that opens up the rock outcrop areas and produces a landscape that transitions from a terrestrial shrubland with scrub oak to an oak forest with a healthy understory.
To achieve such a result, numerous controlled burns over several years could be needed.
“We could struggle with the scrub oak, which likes fire. But we hope to stop the encroachment on these open areas for a short while with repeated burning and keep the scrub oak at the perimeter,” Williamson said.
The use of fire will also increase stem densities for re-generating trees, which will benefit ruffed grouse, boost soft mass production among the blueberry and huckleberry plants and promote the growth of native warm season grasses, such as little bluestem.
According to PGC Land Management Group Supervisor Ryan Gildea, the last record of fire in the area is from 1986. As a result, he said, there’s a lot of fuel on the ground in the form of leaf litter and debris, which means the fire in a controlled burn will be very hot.
The intensity of the fire is expected to burn everything above the surface, but the oaks and other plants with root systems that can withstand the heat should flourish.
Gildea hopes that includes the cinquefoil and other rare species.
“We targeted this area for a controlled burn to improve wildlife habitat. Does a plant like cinquefoil benefit wildlife habitat? Not necessarily, but it’s a native plant to this area that we need to keep,” Gildea said.
Williamson added that Game Commission and DCNR officials will return to the site after the controlled burn to monitor re-growth and determine when fire can be used again.
While the fire is expected to kill everything above the surface, Williamson is confident the vegetation will re-sprout.
And that’s when he hopes to gets answers to some important questions.
“We’ll see how the rare plants come back after fire, how soon we can do another burn and, perhaps most important, if you keep introducing fire what is the long-term result?” Williamson said.
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky