Disturbance Regimes and Landscape Process
The Warren Grove Gunnery Range (WGR) is a 9,416-acre federal facility
situated in the East Pine Plains, Burlington County, New Jersey.
The WGR is operated by the New Jersey Air National Guard's 177th
Fighter Wing and used for tactical and conventional air-to-ground
gunnery training. About 550 acres are used for targets, with the remaining 8,864
acres maintained in a natural state that act as a safety buffer to protect the surrounding
communities from wildfires and dangers associated with military operations.
The WGR is surrounded by state forested lands and undeveloped private
lands. Mission-started fires have the potential to escape from WGR and threaten
surrounding lands and nearby developed communities.
The East Pine Plains is a rare and protected forest community (G2S1)1 situated
within the Pinelands National Reserve, a fire-maintained ecosystem. The Pine
Plains forest type (dwarf pine trees less than 3 meters tall) results from an increased
fire frequency compared to other regions of the Pinelands. The dwarf pine
plains communities are dominated by fire-tolerant species, namely pitch pine (Pinus
rigida), shrub oaks (Quercus marilandica, Q. ilicifolia) and several ericaceous
shrubs. A 5-to-10 year prescribed burning cycle is believed to promote dwarfing
traits in pitch pine and shrub oaks, reduce fuel load buildup, and maintain a characteristic
dwarf pine plains landscape. A long fire history and pattern of frequent
intense burning has shaped this fire-prone ecosystem.
How do you protect this rare fire-prone ecosystem, deal with potential wildfire
and public concerns, and maintain the military mission? The New Jersey Air National
Guard (NJANG) approached these issues through an adaptive resource management
program outlined in the Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan
for WGR: an aggressive prescribed burning program to reduce hazardous fuel
loads around target areas, and assistance from outside partners, including development
of the Warren Grove Range Community Council, which addresses military
issues and local concerns.
Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan: In 2006 the New Jersey Air
National Guard implemented its second five-year Integrated Natural Resources
Management Plan (INRMP) for WGR. (The first began in 2001.) The INRMP is a
guide for the management and stewardship of all natural resources present on
WGR; it employs a multiple-use approach that assures the New Jersey Air National
Guard mission while effectively managing natural resources to conserve biodiversity
and environmental quality. The INRMP was developed by a task force from
several federal, state, and local agencies, including representatives from the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Services, New Jersey
Pinelands Commission, New Jersey Forest Fire Service (njffs), and New Jersey
Bureau of Forest Management. The INRMP identified natural resource management
practices needed to maintain and enhance biological diversity.
The overriding goals included:
- Manage for no net loss in WGR's capability to support the military mission.
- Minimize habitat fragmentation and promote natural connectivity of habitats.
- Protect native species and discourage non-native, exotic species.
- Protect rare and ecologically important species and unique and sensitive environments.
- Maintain or mimic natural processes.
- Protect genetic diversity.
- Restore ecosystems, communities, and species.
- Monitor biodiversity impacts.
Several fire-related issues were identified that required resolution to comply
with the INRMP goals. Specifically, these included:
- A lack of knowledge of the occurrence and distribution of state and federally
listed species that inadvertently could be impacted by mission activities, including
- A need for road improvements to increase better access to fire and decrease response
- A lack of fuel breaks between fire management blocks.
- A lack of a coordinated regional fireshed management that encompasses offrange
Since the implementation of the 2001 INRMP, the NJANG has been proactive in
addressing all four of these concerns. Drexel University recently completed a comprehensive
floral inventory (2002–04) that identified 28 rare plant species and 7
rare habitat types occurring at WGR. These data were entered into a gis database
to be used for planning range operations (e.g., prescribed burning). In addition,
Drexel University has ongoing research associated with a herpetological survey,
small mammal survey, non-native plant survey, avian survey, habitat restoration
assessment and fire management assessment. These studies will help natural resources
managers at WGR to protect habitat, conserve listed species, and maintain
ecosystem function concomitant with the military mission.
Fire Management at WGR
The NJANG has a long history of fire management and forest stewardship at WGR.
The NJANG in 1985, along with the U.S. Park Service, New Jersey Pinelands Commission,
and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, developed a
fire management plan that was designed to mitigate wildfire danger and employ
prescribed burning that uses intense crowning and scorching surface fires to maintain
pine plains habitat. Starting in 1985, several thousand acres of dwarf pine
plains have undergone prescribed burns by the New Jersey Forest Fire Service to
reduce the risk of wildfires. Although these prescribed burns serve to reduce the
buildup of forest fuels near target areas, their frequency and intensity serve an
important ecological function by mimicking the natural fire regime required to
maintain the dwarf pine plains forest type.
Several key ecological goals of the fire management plan are to:
- Maintain a landscape and community-scale fire regime which perpetuates pine
plains and associated forest communities
- Maintain a fire regime mosaic within the pine plains that provides open areas
for rare species such as Conrad's crowberry (Corema conradii) and closed
canopies for other species
- Maintain the diversity of spatial and temporal fire regime patterns
- Maintain a fire regime that maximizes diversity and abundance of rare and
- Take precautions to avoid ecological damage when doing restoration burning
in long unburned communities
- Minimize the effect that smoke has on air quality and human communities.
A recent study by Drexel University evaluated the effects of the fire management
program on species richness and community structure in the pine plains forest
type. The results of this study indicated that the current fire management strategy
employed by WGR maintains a pine plains community, does not impact rare
species, and does not encourage non-native species. The study determined that the
fire management plan encourages diversity and maintains ideal habitat for several
fire-dependent species such as pine barren reed grass (Calamovilfa brevipilis).
Starting in 1999, a more aggressive prescribed burn program was initiated
around target areas. Range personnel have actively improved and widened 12
miles of primary roads to increase larger fuel breaks between fire management
blocks. Another 30 miles of interior roads that dissect fire blocks and eight miles
of plowlines have also been improved. The WGR is divided into 30 fire blocks that
receive prescribed burning at different intervals and at different intensities so that
the burn mimics the natural fire regime for that forest type. For example, the seven
fire blocks that encircle the target zone are pine plains and pine plains transitional
forest habitat types that are burned on a rotational basis every five to seven years.
In contrast, fire blocks in buffer zones dominated by more arborescent trees have
longer prescribed burned intervals. This fire management strategy promotes a fire
regime that more closely mimics natural fire patterns. Some fire blocks in the target
zone are burned more regularly than a five-to-seven-year frequency if they
pose a potential wildfire risk. The NJANG works with a trained fire ecologist to
develop a prescribed burn plan for each fire block. The fire ecologist and range
personnel survey each fire block for rare species, sensitive habitat, and wetlands
before improving or putting in plowlines and fire access roads. If necessary, a conservation
plan is put into place to protect rare species and sensitive habitats. In
some cases, prescribed burning is recommended to improve or restore sensitive
habitat. Seed banks, dispersal corridors, and metapopulation dynamics are considered
for species with limited distribution at WGR. Ecological burns are typically
scheduled in February or early March, at a time when rare snake species and
still in hibernation and will not be impacted by the burn. The prescribed burn
plan is evaluated by the njffs. The fire ecologist monitors the prescribed burn
and prepares a post-burn fire analysis to evaluate ecological effects and success
of fire management goals.
Outside Partners and Warren Grove Community Council
The New Jersey Forest Service is currently coordinating an effort with United
States Air Force, NJANG, NJ Pinelands Commission, njdep, and the NJ Division
of Fish and Wildlife, along with Stafford, Little Egg Harbor, and Bass River municipalities
to develop an East Plains Fire Shed Management Plan. The New Jersey
Conservation Foundation (NJFC) has initiated a program to acquire and manage
lands adjacent to the WGR. The NJANG and NJFC have agreed to work together
to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities. In addition, the NJANG
organized the Warren Grove Range Community Council (WGRCC) to provide a
forum for discussion of interests and issues associated with WGR. This is especially
important because of increased encroachment and development in nearby
townships. Members of the WGRCC include local government representatives, environmental
groups, educators, research scientists, and njffs. The WGRCC meets
twice a year at a different municipality to discuss citizen concerns about mission
related activities including wildland-urban fire risks. The WGR fire management
plan, role of fire in the Pinelands, and potential risks to communities are key topics
of discussion addressed by the NJANG and njffs.