Category Archives: Land Management

Planted Firebreaks and Fallow Field Followup

Lessons learned from planting firebreaks are fairly small but important to prevent wasted effort and money. Firstly the seeding failed on both Wet and dry sites, but for different reasons. On the dry sites it was too exposed to the sun causing the soil to be too dry. Soil fertility was also in question. With more effort and a drought tolerant seed mix, this could likely be overcome. Our solution is to let natural warm season grasses establish themselves and keep the firebreaks mowed.

Xeric Site Growth
Xeric Site Growth

In the wet sites, in our bottom lands, the clover and small grains were successful. Unfortunately they succumbed to competition from fescue grass. With more regular
Mowing this could have been delayed but we failed to give it the attention needed.

Mesic Site Growth
Mesic Site Growth

As far as firebreak widths, two tractor widths is too much for our properties. I’n flat untried agricultural land this is possible but in the upper piedmont of the Appalachians we have trees and small pastures that make a wide firebreak unrealistic. Our firebreaks range in width from one to one and a half tractor widths and seems plenty sufficient.

Disking in a Firebreak
Disking in a Firebreak

In summary, allow warm season grasses to grow on drier sites. On moist sites a mix of rye, wheat, red clover, and a white clover (Dutch or ladino) should work well. Finally keep firebreaks mowed to reduce competition and to keep them clearly marked. Plus, disking the same area is a lot easier and you’ll run into fewer rocks as well!

Here are the results of the fallow field as it grew in:

Fallow Field A
Fallow Field A
Fallow Field B
Fallow Field B

Prescribed Burning for Early Oak Successional Habitat

After a few years of burning wildlife openings we were ready for our first woods burn. We were aiming for a low intensity fire that would clean up the under growth and increase herbaceous vegetation in a ten acre southwest facing stand. This would be our test plot, which was chosen because the aspect and elevation meant that it had fire adapted species. A moist north facing slope would contain more fire intolerant species like poplar and black cherry. This stand mostly consisted of w well spaced mature pines and oak. Lastly, the terrain and tree density , unlike other stands permitted the development of fire breaks.

Stand before burning
Stand before burning

The process began with marking the proposed fire breaks by walking skidded trails and old road beds and then tying them together avoiding drainages as much as possible. These were mapped, as are all our other land management features using the geographic information systems data model we developed to handle land management, Geoforst.

Burn Map
Map of burn planning features

Next, the firebreaks were created by first bush hogging the path and then alternately using a field plow and a disk harrow to ensure that a good barrier to fire was created. Getting off the tractor and moving logs and rocks is necessary.

Video of Disking Fire Breaks

We then contacted the state forestry commission and scheduled to meet with a forester in charge of prescribed burning. He stopped by and discussed goals, strategy, and looked over the fire breaks. We arranged for them to be back in a week when the weather was good and they had available time.

To protect the hardwoods, we walked the stand marking crop trees. In this case, crop trees were undamaged hardwoods with good form. Since we knew that the fire would be low intensity we did not expect any mortality of the mature oaks, but we did not want to run the risk of fire scarring them. The mature pines are very tolerant of fire and we plan to harvest them in the next ten years and were therefore re no concern.

crop trees
Crop trees marked with green flagging

To ensure no damage to the crop trees we did two things. First we removed all brush from the trunks of the trees. Secondly we raked the leaf matter from around the trunks. We felt this was important since it was the first time these woods had been burned in at least fifty years. An alternate method used a backpack leaf blower which works well purportedly. This was not available so we went with the rake.

At this point we were truly ready and were now waiting on the weather. The day came and the forestry commission showed up with three men and a bulldozer just in case. We wanted all the protection we could be since the we really didn’t know what we were in for. Conditions were mild and the fire was very manageable. Watching how things were done and asking lots of questions has us very confident that we can perform the next burn without assistance.

Low intensity burn
Low intensity burn, just like we planned for

The next stage will be monitoring the results. Since this was a very low intensity fire, there will likely need to be several more in close succession to accomplish our goals. Ideally we’d like to stimulate oak regeneration, but literature on the subject seems contradictory. In fact there are a fair number of foresters that still believe that fire should be excluded from hardwood stands. By culling the Virginia pine and implementing a fire regime, I believe this can be achieved while simutaneously opening the understory to herbaceous vegetation. Our biggest challenge will be over powering the Virginia pine seedlings. At any rate studies show that fires were frequent in the Southern Appalachians, even in hardwood stands. Let’s s e what happens.

The Fire–Oak Literature of
Eastern North America:
Synthesis and Guidelines

GeoForst Lite, Adding a New Property – Part 2


Last time we downloaded and configured the software and data sources we needed to start adding data to the project. If you missed it, just visit Getting Started with GeoForst Lite.

If your familiar with GIS, this post won’t be worth much, but skimming through will get you familiar with some of the datasets. In this post we are focusing on adding data to the Land_Area table which acts as a container for properties.

Alternately, if you aren’t familiar with GIS, this will give you enough knowledge to add a property to the map. There are links to some QGIS tutorials in the post that are worth visiting.

Helpful Items

There are a few things that your should have or know before you start, if possible. Here are a few that may help you on your project:

  • The ability to find your property on a map.
  • A platt map, or some other map of the boundaries and corners of your property.
  • Intimate knowledge of your land.

Adding a property

The first thing we want to do is add the boundary of your property, so we have an area to work within. Before we do that we need to find the property somehow in the map. This is where the osmSearch plugin will help. To make the osmSearch panel visible go to the View menu View > Panel > osmSearch. You can dock this anywhere you like, or not, your choice.

Adding osmSearch panel.

For this turn on the Google Physical layer that we added through the OpenLayers plugin and type in the city and state of the location into the osmSearch panel and hit Search. The location will then appear in the results field. Clicking on the result will pan you to the location you chose. Unfortunately it will not zoom, so you’ll need to choose an appropriate scale, 1:500,000 is a good place to start.

Note: osmSearch will highlight the feature you searched for in red, which can be annoying once you’ve zoomed in to the location. Dismiss it by clicking the “x” in the right hand corner of the search text box.

Zoom to place

At this point you should be able to find your property and zoom into so that the entire property is just visible. You probably want to turn off the Google Physical layer and turn on the Bing Aerial layer once you start zooming in, you’ll have to feel that transition out for yourself.


Adding a Property to the Map

Next will will edit the layer named “Land Areas” to add the property boundary. To do this select the layer, right click on it, and select toggle editing. At this point the layer is ready for editing.


Click on the add feature button on the editing toolbar and begin delineating your property by digitizing the boundaries. For more information on editing layers in QGIS, visit digitizing an existing layer.


Digitize your property boundary and add the attributes as shown below.
Adding Property Attributes

Stop editing, and save your edits. You should have something like this:
Newly added property.

Save the project before you close down QGIS and next post we will add some forest stands.

GeoForst Lite, Getting Started – Part 1


GeoForst Lite is a standalone program consisting of three parts, QGIS, a local datastore, and a QGIS map.


  1. Download QGIS version 2.x and install.
  2. Download GeoForst Lite.
  3. Unzip GeoForst Lite and move it to any directory you choose. Your home or documents directory is a fine place for it.

Adding Plugins

At this point you should have the ability to start the QGIS. There are a couple of ways to make this easy. Let’s step through the process.

Begin by opening the QGIS application, it should open to a blank project. At this point we need to add a couple plugins to make life easy. To do this, select the Plugins menu and select Manage and Install Plugins….


Now we want the good stuff, so let’s enable the experimental plugins and we are ready to get our plugins.


Okay lets get two plugins, the OpenLayers plugin and the osmSearch plugin. OpenLayers will let us display a variety of excellent base layers such as Google Terrain and Bing Imagery. This is really fantastic stuff. The osmSearch plugin lets you find locations by place name, which beats finding a location by pan and zoom alone. Search for those Plugins and install them.

Installing the OpenLayers plugin…

Finally let’s add the OSM place search plugin…

At this point the setup is complete. Open the GForst_Lite.qgs file that you unzip and placed on your file system and there will be three layers under the External Layers group.


Note: The OpenLayers plugin layers need a kick in the pants to scale correctly when first added. Zoom in or pan a bit to force it to redraw. It’s wonky, but a small price to pay for a great addition to QGIS.

Next up

Adding Your Property to GeoForst.

Creating Fallow Field Wildlife Openings with Planted Firebreaks

A result of the thinning was six wildlife openings that we had marked for total harvest during the tree marking phase of the project. It is important to note that a wildlife opening, at least a maintainable one, is not created solely from the cutting of trees. In fact, that is just the beginning.

The process started with a literature review on wildlife openings and habitat development. The most thorough and applicable document found was an excellent paper by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Managing Habitats for Ruffed Grouse in the Central and Southern Appalachians. Although it is focused on grouse, it presents practical and scientifically based forestry practices that promotes the acceleration and spatial compression of natural processes to benefit game while keeping them viable in both and economic and labor senses. I can’t say enough about this paper. Read it, read it again, and keep revisiting it as it is information dense.

In a nutshell, this is how we transformed a cut-over area into a wildlife opening:

Freshly cleared opening.

You can see in the photo above that it’s going to take more than spreading seed to make a permanent opening from this. To accomplish this, we first burned the slash. This unfortunately cost us some of the trees surrounding the opening, the heat was blistering.

Following this, we cleared the remaining slash and prepared the opening for planting. This required cutting the remaining stumps flush so that we would be able to navigate the openings with the tractor. Regular burning of the wildlife openings is anticipated, but it is mandatory that we can control them by mechanical means as well, via rotary cutter.

Cleaned opening

After cleaning we were ready to put in the planted firebreaks. The route we chose for most of the openings was to create a firebreak 10 meters from the edge of the woods that was two tractor widths wide which we would plant with a mixture of wheat and white clover. The interior of the opening would remain as a fallow field, which we would burn every few years.

To accomplish this, we marked the edge of the firebreak with red tree marking paint, directly on the ground and plowed in the two strips. This required cleaning the plow often and moving left over rocks and debris out of the way.

Plowed in firebreak

For this we used a standard chisel plow.

Once the ground had been broken up, rock, roots and debris cleared from the plowed strips, a disc harrow was used prepare for planting. This worked moderately well, but for a proper job it requires a lot of time and a bulldozer would be handy for the stumps.
Planting was done by calculating the plowed area and seed was measured using a bathroom scale. The seed mixture was distributed using a hand spreader which affords much more control than a tractor mounted spreader.

Finally, a piece of chain link fence was dragged behind an ATV to cover the seed and the rest we left up to the weather.

Here is a little bit on the results of this:
Planted Firebreaks and Fallow Field Followup