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Nearly half a million acres of land is under protection by conservation agencies in the Commonwealth. These lands and waters represent a successful effort to protect our natural resources. Yet, often the plants, animals, and natural communities remain threatened.
For example, water level alterations due to dam construction or water withdrawal can alter the plant and animal communities of a protected natural area. Many of our dry forests, shrublands and grasslands were managed with fire for thousands of years by Native Americans. Now, lack of occasional fire has caused significant changes in those communities, decreasing habitat for many of our rare plants and animals.
We focus on habitat restoration at sites of exceptional ecological significance identified from our database that are on public lands under permanent conservation protection. Successful ecological restoration requires a basis of thorough scientific understanding of the natural dynamics of any system to be restored or managed.
Many people are surprised to hear about the fundamental role that fire plays in shaping the Massachusetts landscape. For many decades total fire exclusion from all natural lands was general policy throughout Massachusetts and the entire United States, because of difficulty in stopping uncontrolled fires and the damage wrought in the late 1800s by slash fires after timbering. Fire exclusion has resulted in the decline of numerous species and degradation of entire ecosystems. Massachusetts has several native natural communities that are fire adapted, including some that provide habitat to state- and federally-listed rare species. These natural communities include sandplain grasslands and heathlands, scrub oak shrublands, pitch pine-scrub oak barrens and ridgetops, calcareous fens, and oak woodlands.
Prescribed fire is an important tool, involving staff from all sections of the agency (e.g. Fisheries, Wildlife, Natural Heritage, Districts). We partner with other state agencies and non-profit organizations to conduct prescribed burning on select protected lands in Massachusetts every year. The approach to prescribed burning is scientific and not undertaken lightly. The primary concerns for all prescribed burns are personal and site safety. Planning is critical for every burn, whether it is conducted for research purposes, restoration, fuel reduction, or habitat maintenance.
Many natural communities have been changed by introduced plant and animal species that become invasive on this continent without their natural enemies to control them. Some of the invasive exotic plants and animals now dominate native communities and alter the ecological relationships. Many of our undeveloped lands and conservation areas are threatened by these non-native species.
Since the colonization of Massachusetts by European settlers, many non-native species have been brought into the Commonwealth. Many of them were introduced for their agricultural, medicinal, and/or landscaping values. Others arrived inadvertently, carried as seeds with livestock, shipping materials, or even in the clothing people wore.
Today we, and other conservation organizations, work to control the spread of invasive plant species in our most critical habitats and natural communities. Outbreaks of invasive animal species are handled on a case-by case, species-by-species basis. For example, in 2009 the presence of the invasive zebra mussel was confirmed in Laurel Lake in Lee, Massachusetts. The presence of this species affected boat cleaning requirements for the area.
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