It's been so long since a natural fire roared through Cape Henlopen State Park that no one can recall the last time it happened.
That means that over the years a thick layer of leaves has built up, smothering some rare and endangered plants. Shrubs have choked off habitat and diversity has declined.
So sometime within the next few weeks, state officials hope to try an experiment on about 25 remote acres of parkland. Under carefully controlled conditions, they will set a fire to clear the accumulation of leaves and shrubs and open up the forest canopy to let in more light.
Then, over the next few years, they'll monitor the area to see whether the fire has enabled native seeds to sprout and grow.
"We've been talking about this for 10 years," said Rob Line, environmental stewardship program manager for the state Department of Parks and Recreation. "For the last 100 years we've done everything to suppress fires, but the result is that some habitats have become rare, being smothered by overhead trees that prevent light from reaching the ground.
"This forest canopy needs to be opened up so that we can ensure the preservation of native species of rare plants, grasses and herbs along with the trees," he added. "This burn will start the restoration of these rare habitats."
Cape Henlopen State Park is one of Delaware's most distinctive habitats, with vast expanses of beach, dunes, wetlands and maritime forest.
A study done a decade ago found that there were 34 rare plant species in the park, three of which exist nowhere else on the Delmarva Peninsula.
There are rare heathers, exotic flowering plants and herbs. And the park is one of the southernmost coastal habitats for pitch pine.
The controlled burn -- also called a prescribed burn -- would be a first at Cape Henlopen, but state forestry officials do use such burns on some of the other properties they manage.
"Prescribed fire is a widely used application on state forest land for restoration and site improvement efforts," said Erich T. Burkentine, the southern regional forester and regional fire management officer for the Delaware Forest Service. "The benefits far outweigh any negative perceptions of its use." Read more(?)