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Using Controlled Burns To Manage Stones River National Battlefield


A controlled burn was conducted at Stones River National Battlefield in mid-January to wipe out non-native vegetation. NPS photo by Stuart Johnson.

When "controlled burns" are mentioned in the national park system, most thoughts turn to big, sprawling Western parks, such as Zion, Yellowstone and Yosemite. But using fire as a management tool also is beneficial at places such as Stones River National Battlefield in Tennessee.

Stones River, located about 30 miles southeast of Nashville, Tennessee, isn't a huge unit of the national park system. In fact, it covers only about 600 acres. During the Civil War the battle, which erupted on December 31, 1862, covered about 4,000 acres. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the conflict, as 18,771 soldiers -- nearly one-quarter of the 80,717 who took part -- were either killed or wounded.

The battle was a tactical victory for the Union Army, which pushed the Confederate Army south towards Duck River. After the battle the Union established Fortress Rosecrans, considered the largest earthen fortification built during the Civil War, on the site.

In 1927, a portion of the battlefield was set aside as part of the park system.

These days more than 200,000 visitors come to Stones River to learn more about the battle, watch re-enactments, and to better understand the outcome of the battle. To help maintain the historical appearance of the landscape, Park Service personnel from time to time take steps to preserve and maintain the battlefield. At times those steps involve prescribed burns.

"Although Stones River is a relatively small battlefield park, we use natural resource strategies (including prescribed fire) to restore, preserve, and maintain cultural landscapes," says Superintendent Stuart Johnson. "Prescribed fire is an especially useful tool for controlling exotics and promoting conditions conducive to revegetating fields and earthworks with native grasses."

During the recent Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend park personnel burned some 52 acres to eliminate non-native vegetation and "knock back" woody undergrowth. "Although it is helpful, prescribed burning is not a 'magic bullet,' says the superintendent. "It's just a tool that we use in concert with other management tools."

In some cases, he explains, herbacides are later applied.

After the fires, personnel come back and vegetate the burned areas with a variety of warm-season native grasses, such as Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, Switch Grass, Panic Grasses, and Broom Sedge.


Although some of our Stones River staff members have fire management training, our park does not have the internal capacity to manage prescribed burns. Because of this, we work closely with the excellent fire management staff of the Natchez Trace Parkway. They bring their equipment and highly trained crew to Stones River, and they plan and supervise the prescribed burns at the areas we have identified. Those members of our staff who are trained work right alongside Natchez Trace staff and are able to gain additional training and valuable experience from this partnership.

In many areas of this country you can ask Pheasants Forever or Quail Unlimited for help with a prescribed burn and reseeding the burned area.

That's an awesome photo.

Stones River, by the way, is facing monumental threats because of development at Middle Tennessee State University, (located just across town, it's the fastest growing university in America), in the city of Mufreesboro, and in the Greater Nashville Mess of a Meglapolis itself. For example, TDOT has considered building a highway interchange in the park, and NPCA consistently puts STRI on its list of "10 Most Endangered Parks"

Stones River might be 'just' another battlefield in the park system, but it's one worth preserving.

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." - Emerson

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