Spotsylvania Burning

From John Hennessy:

Fire in the woods behind the new McGowan Brigade monument at Spotsylvania

You would be amazed how much time, energy, and money we–the NPS, an agency devoted to critters and plants (and other things)–commit to battling nature. Nearly half our park budget goes to beating back nature–cutting grass, managing earthworks, keeping healthy forests. We use a lot of methods to do this (most of them run-of-the-mill), but in the last few years have experimented with fire at Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield.

Most of our efforts there are focused on the fields, using fire to help re-establish native grasses that are ecologically healthier and need less maintenance than the stuff we grow in our backyards (well, your back yard, not mine, where nothing seems to grow).  We are still assessing the results of several years of burning the fields at Spotsylvania, but a close comparison suggests that fire is helping–encouraging stronger grasses and less woody growth.

The view from the Confederate works looking through the thinned out timber between the Angle and the McCoull house, visible in the distance. Notice the heavy damage to the trees by bullets. As with all things Spotsylvania, John Cummings worked to identify the specific location of this photo

One of our ongoing conundrums is the management of historic landscapes that fall in between sustainable conditions. The Wilderness as a whole is a good example of this–we cannot maintain the emerging growth that covered much of the area in 1864, for emerging growth inevitably becomes mature.  At other places we have had to make hard choices. In the area of Jackson’s flank attack, much of the ground around what is today the tour stop there is shown on the maps as wooded. But, we know from accounts that it was generally low, emergent growth.  We can get that for a year or two, but keeping it is unsustainable. So, do we keep it in field…or allow it to grow into  a forest?  In this case, we have kept it open, largely because it’s our judgment that that condition allows visitors to better understand the field.  Perfect?  No. Useful?  We think so.

Behind the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania we face a different conundrum. Period images clearly show that the woods behind the angle were wide open, probably regularly grazed by livestock of some kind (something that rarely happens in woods today). Today those same woods are choked with undergrowth and visually impenetrable. This week we embarked on a bit of an experiment in those woods: using fire to clear out the understory and make the woods more open. 

It’s an adjunct to our wider burning program at Spotsylvania, an experiment with little risk.  It’s a bit like getting a haircut. If it doesn’t work well, we’ll just let the understory grow back. Mind you, one burn is not the solution.  We’ll incorporate the four wooded acres burned this week into our regular burn program at Spotsylvania, and judge the results after a number of burn cycles. Our hope is to have a landscape of still greater power than it already possesses, one where visitors have a stronger sense of a landscape now transformed.


6 thoughts on “Spotsylvania Burning

  1. What about using animals such as goats. I know there are issues and risk with this solution. The least of which is cutting your foot.

    • Sam: Good question. It used to be a common thing to see livestock in parks, but not so much anymore. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the days when you could let livestock access whatever water source was available (be it a stream or pond) are gone due to concerns about erosion and water quality. Instead, anyone running livestock would need a water source or tank that is separate from natural sources.

      Second, livestock and visitors often don’t get a long very well.

      Another reason specific to Spotsylvania: livestock and earthworks in the woods would likewise not go well together. Goats don’t care if they chow down on top of an earthwork, scuffing the ground with their hoofs. But, we care a great deal.

      Personally, I would love to see our landscapes put to more use, and indeed to see cattle and livestock on them again. But, I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. Thanks for reading. John H.

      • I just read an article in NAT GEO that you can rent a heard of goats with hearder and fence for $200.00 a day.

  2. Curious- after a burn have there been any attempts at doing archealogical work? Yes, I’m sure the area has probably been gone over with a fine tooth comb, but I thought I’d ask anyway…

  3. Mark: Unlike someplace like Little Big Horn, the natural ground cover is not really a barrier to archeology, should we opt to do it. Fact is, though, that archeology is VERY expensive, and it is usually done as part of a larger project (for example, preparatory to the restoration of the Sunken Road), rather than as an investigation in and of itself. We wish it were otherwise, but it is so virtually everywhere. John H.

  4. While I haven’t been to Spotsy in a while, something I hope to change in November, I have seem what burning has done at Cold Harbor. Seems to be a very viable way to assist Mother Nature. I dont envy you in trying to find a balance between the wishes of the visitors who want a clear view, and preservation which needs cover to prevent erosion.
    Good luck with the program.

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