Park staff at Congaree National Park have developed an environmental assessment (EA) for a new Fire Management Plan in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and federal wildland fire policy. This EA will facilitate proposed updates in fire management strategies, fire terminology, management of sensitive plant and wildlife species/communities, and updated knowledge about vegetation restoration in the park.
CONG contains over 26,000 acres of diverse vegetative and forest communities, of which about 90 percent is floodplain consisting of surface water features or bottomland hardwoods. Most of the park is designated wilderness or being assessed for possible future additions to the wilderness. More information regarding the fundamental purposes and guidance to CONG management may be found in the 2014 CONG Foundation Document at http://www.nps.gov/cong/learn/management/upload/CONG_FD_SP.pdf
On the north side of the park are forested uplands and upland depressional wetlands, adjacent to private lands outside the park. Historically the uplands were a "fire adapted" ecosystem consisting mostly of open stands of native longleaf pine, with abundant grass and forb understory and associated wildlife such as the red-cockaded woodpecker. The longleaf pine communities burned every 2-4 years, mostly in low intensity surface fires ignited by lightning. Most of the longleaf pine was logged before CONG became a park. Fire suppression and agricultural practices helped a dense, replacement loblolly pine/hardwood forest develop in place of the native forest. This non-fire adapted successional forest replaced the diverse native vegetation and wildlife that had existed prior to European settlement in the area.
As part of its mission to protect and restore native plant and wildlife communities, the National Park Service (NPS) initiated prescribed burning in the uplands in 1984 to reduce hazard fuels and begin to attempt to restore the upland forest communities. The current CONG fire management plan may be found at www.nps.gov/cong/getinvolved/upload/CONG_2004_Fire_Management_Plan_Smallest.pdf.
Some of the upland prescribed burn units have burned up to six times; while some objectives have been achieved, longleaf pine forest restoration efforts have not been as effective as desired. Through research and monitoring the CONG staff has learned that they cannot effectively achieve forest and restoration objectives through prescribed burning alone. An updated FMP is needed to re-define strategies to increase forest restoration success. Until this EA process is complete, and an updated FMP is approved, CONG will continue to suppress all wildfires and limit their vegetation management/prescribed burn activities to that allowed under their 2004 FMP.
A new FMP should facilitate restoration of fire-dependent communities and associated threatened and endangered species, provide further reduction of hazardous fuels, resulting in better protection of adjacent private property, and incorporate updates in national fire policy and terminology.
All comments on the Environmental Assessment must be received by March 30, 2017.