Cape Cod National Seashore, Cape Cod, Massachusetts

"Management by Match"

"I'd like to get it all to the stage where it's 'management by match,' " says David Crary, fire management officer on Cape Cod National Seashore. Crary is referring to some 18,000 acres of upland habitat that planners consider to be "burnable" on the 43,500-acre Seashore.

Cape Cod is known for its pristine beaches on the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Cod Bay. Yet the beaches are but one facet of a much larger and more complex environment. In some upland settings, Crary and his fellow resource managers are using different combinations of mechanical cutting and controlled burning to periodically set the forest back to an earlier growth stage. That opens up vistas and restores or maintains important cultural landscapes such as open heathlands – actions that have fortunate consequences for wildlife.

Heathland habitat on Cape Cod

Heathland -- with a mix of grasses and low-growing shrubs -- starts just behind the dunes on Cape Cod./K. Martin

A cost-effective way to renew many such habitats, and the technique that best mimics the natural processes that once held sway on the Cape, is the careful use of fire. Controlled burning every few years lessens the accumulation of fallen branches, pine needles, and dry leaves on the ground, lowering the odds that an unplanned fire (from a lightning strike, for instance) will blow up into an out-of-control conflagration that could consume homes and threaten people's lives.

A forester by training, Crary oversees a crew that burns 100 to 200 acres per year on the National Seashore. Crary also conducts burns on sites such as the Wellfleet Audubon Sanctuary, where fire helps create and maintain habitat needed by wildlife.

One tract on the National Seashore that showcases the results of prescribed burning is the Marconi Station Area. "We've burned around 8 acres per year there in each of the last five years," Crary says. "We're experimenting with different techniques, including cutting, piling, and burning tree debris; cutting and leaving the debris to dry on the ground before applying fire; and creating slow-moving fires that remove low vegetation, as well as quicker, hotter fires that kill standing trees."

starting a controlled burn

Managers burn small sections at a time to keep fires under control./D. Carey

The most abundant tree in this area – as it is on most of Cape Cod – is pitch pine, a species highly adapted to the Cape's well-drained sandy soil. When not set back periodically by a natural disturbance, such as a fire, pitch pines will slowly dominate the landscape. As they grow taller and become more dense, they cast shade on smaller trees and shrubs. One such shrub is scrub oak, an important species for wildlife, which find shelter under its stems and feed on plants growing beneath its semi-open canopy. If pitch pines shade out and kill scrub oak, an area will gradually transition from being shrubland into forest. Today, more forest cloaks the Cape than at any other time since European settlement.

Small Burns Shape the Land

Habitat managers want to keep diverse habitats present on the Cape. One way they work toward this goal is through controlled burning: lighting fires that renew the habitat in select areas.

Scrub oak springs back after fire

Fire rejuvenates shrubs like scrub oak and blueberry, and that helps wildlife./C. Fergus

Large controlled burns can be very difficult and expensive to plan and carry out. Crary prefers to conduct many smaller burns, which are more cost-effective and easier to control. "We're whittling away at the habitat along the Marconi Site Road," he says. By burning 1-acre patches, "We only need a crew of five – the small plot size gives us a good margin of safety." Crary's crew uses firebreaks to keep fires where they want them. They deploy sprinklers on 4-foot poles to hold a fire within a burn plot, and they soak down vegetation that they want to protect, such as stands of bearberry and broom crowberry, two rare ground-hugging plants growing on the Cape.

After a burn, native grasses grow back vigorously. Scrub oak, sending up shoots from its root system, is transformed from a straggling shrub with a few large stems to a dense, wildlife-friendly thicket. Huckleberry, blueberry, and dewberry, whose fruits are eaten by reptiles, birds, and mammals, spring up after fire sweeps across the land.

Fires Help Wildlife By Renewing Habitat

Bob Cook is a wildlife ecologist with the National Seashore. "In the past, natural forces such as fire caused patches of young forest and shrubland to move around on the landscape," he says.

gray catbird

Gray catbird is just one of many birds that need young-forest habitat./T. Berriman

"Many native animals need heathland, shrubland, and young forest. Woodcock and whip-poor-wills use these semi-open areas for courtship. Box turtles shift back and forth between open and wooded habitats. They hibernate during winter by digging themselves down into the soil in areas with thick leaf litter and organic matter. Then in the summer, they lay their eggs in nests that they dig in open areas where the sun can reach the ground: the warmer soil in those places incubates the eggs until they hatch."

Cook notes that prescribed burning helps other grassland and heathland wildlife, including Eastern meadowlarks, bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows, vesper sparrows, and small mammals such as meadow voles and meadow jumping mice, important prey for hawks, owls, and small carnivores. Many kinds of butterflies, moths, and other insects depend on open or young-forest habitats and are not found in mature woods.

Says Cook, "On Cape Cod, as in most of southern New England, forest is the dominant habitat type. But many of the wild animals found in this region need a variety of different habitats at different times during their lives. Some live only in young forest or early successional settings. Clearly, over time there were enough natural disturbances to keep those kinds of habitats present." The careful and judicious use of fire reproduces those natural disturbances to keep the environment on the Cape healthy.

Each year millions of visitors enjoy the beaches for which Cape Cod is justifiably famous. Those who hike in upland areas get to see and hear the wildlife that thrives following prescribed burning: Northern bobwhites calling from grassy edges. Gray catbirds and brown thrashers nesting in scrub-oak thickets. Black racers slithering through the shrubs hunting for mice. Box turtles burying their eggs in the sandy soil – or digging in to take cover when a fire renews their habitat.

How to Visit

The headquarters for the Cape Cod National Seashore is at 99 Marconi Site Road, Wellfleet. Continue past the headquarters complex to view areas that have been burned in recent years. Most burning has taken place on the east, or seaward, side of the paved road between the headquarters and the Marconi Station Site.

For more information on controlled burning on Cape Cod National Seashore, contact David Crary, Jr., Fire Management Officer, 508-957-0716, Ecologist Bob Cook can be reached at 508-487-3262 x 0503, or