be converted to other uses. Acres remaining forested often become fragmented and the smaller tract sizes make it much more difficult to manage for wildlife or forest products or to realize the full benefits of clean water and air associated with forests.
For thousands of years, fire has influenced Missouri’s forest and woodland landscapes. Historically, Native Americans used fire for improving wildlife habitat and hunting opportunities, enhancing travel conditions and as defense against rival tribes. These fires resulted in a rich mosaic of prairie, glade, savanna, woodland and forest communities across the state.
As European settlers displaced Native Americans in the early 1800s, they continued the tradition of using fire to improve grazing opportunities for free-ranging livestock.
It has only been in the past 70 years that Missourians have begun suppressing wildfires. These efforts have been so successful that Missouri currently only has about 50,000 acres of wildfires per year. This is a remarkable achievement considering that earlier in the 20th century, up to one-third of the Ozarks burned each year.
Fire suppression has significantly improved the quality of Missouri’s forest products and has greatly increased the safety of people and their property.
However, the removal of fire has also had negative impacts. For example, we are now seeing a strong shift from the fire-tolerant, shadeintolerant species that traditionally dominated our forests (mostly oaks and pines) to species such as maples and elms, which are not tolerant of fire, but are highly tolerant of shade.
This change has not come without consequences. A significant impact of the removal of fire is that our forests are becoming overcrowded. Wildfires historically thinned out forests as weak competitors and fire-intolerant species succumbed, while the survivors grew larger.
Trees now have to compete for light, water, nutrients and space in crowded forests, and they grow very slowly, produce less fruit and nuts and are more vulnerable to insects and diseases. What’s more, the replacement of oaks with maples and elms means fewer acorns that many wildlife species require.
A crowded forest also shades the forest floor to the point that many wildflowers, grasses and other understory vegetation cannot survive. This trend affects many sensitive wildlife species that need this vegetation for food and cover.
Finally, the newcomer tree species are often much less desirable for forest products than the oaks they are replacing. This will eventually impact the type, amount and quality of wood products we are able to produce.
There are ways