Natural wildfires are a very important part of the life cycle of the Cumberland Island ecosystem. Several species and communities cannot exist without it. Even live oaks benefit from fire. The wetlands rely on fire to control encroaching vegetation and remove accumulated organic material during dry spells. Endangered long leaf pines will not reproduce without the presence of fire.
Under National Park Service management, fires have been controlled and prevented. As a result, colonial nesting wading birds no longer nest on the island. Wood storks once nested heavily on Cumberland Island, but a lack of fire has allowed vegetation to encroach upon their nesting sites and made the storks vulnerable to preadtors. Wood storks, egrets, and night herons have abandoned the island as a nesting site.
The scrub forest community on Cumberland Island also depends on fire. Fire-adapted plants such as saw palmetto, stagger bush, pine and bay compose a large portion of the north end of the island. Without periodic fires, the community loses much of its biodiversity.
The fire history of the scrub forest community shows a major burn every 25 to 30 years. However, the National Park Service’s full fire suppression policy on Cumberland Island has interrupted this natural cycle. Continued fire suppression endangers the island’s ecological health.
Residences and historic structures are always protected fully under any fire management plan. However, the island needs a fire management plan that both protects structures as well as allows natural fires to burn—especially in the wilderness. The Park Service’s current fire management policy does not comply with wilderness management guidelines as defined in the Wilderness Act.
Fire plays an essential role in the island ecosystems. Without it, the island’s flora and fauna continue to suffer. Fire in the Wilderness should be managed according to the letter and spirit of the Wilderness Act. Allow natural fires—but not human-ignited ones. Prescribed burns are another form of human manipulation of the Wilderness.
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