Fire and Mount Joy


Adam Christie, VDCR Steward, has a lot to offer the Natural Heritage Program and Master Naturalists.

Adam Christie has big plans for the Mount Joy Pond Natural Area Preserve. Adam is the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Program’s Shenandoah Valley Region Steward and the Mount Joy Pond Preserve, near Raphine, VA, is one of nine preserves in his territory. He admits to it being his pet project. On Tuesday, November 10, Adam treated eight Headwaters Master Naturalists to an afternoon interpretive stroll along some freshly improved fireroads he has developed for this ecological sweet spot.

With reminders of its recent history as a trash dump still pocking the landscape, Mount Joy Pond Natural Area Preserve is home to a large biologically sensitive sinkhole pond whose acidic, silty, loam soil supports the globally rare G1 S1* ranked Helenium virginicum Virginia sneezeweed. Adam orchestrated the removal of some five tons of trash from the area last year. This year’s project has him preparing for a springtime controlled burn covering roughly half of the 270 acre preserve with high hopes of bringing back the oak-hickory forest currently dominated by red maples and white pines. The burns target saplings of 4″ diameter and less with the maples and pines being especially vulnerable. There are some five different types of oaks in the area which stand to thrive after the burns.

The controlled burns also have the potential of springing to life long-dormant seeds which may offer some surprise diversity. Another hoped-for effect is to increase the pond’s diminishing inundation period. Adam’s plans include the installation of a series of water-table monitoring wells which may help prove his working theory: decrease the densely packed young, fast-growing red maples and white pines sucking down the aquifer and the pond may return to its historically longer periods of holding water. Adam helped us envision the unique water-holding properties of sinkhole pond beds by roughly comparing them to Goretex: water can seep from the underground aquifer through the cobble and silt bedrock when the water table is high enough and as the water level retreats, the water stays in the pond.

Evapotranspiration from forest foliage helps explain why sinkhole ponds tend to have the most water in the winter when the deciduous trees are bare. Despite the reality of area development and increased number of water wells also contributing to a lowered aquifer, removing the fastest growing, most dense growth around the pond could make it more pond-like.

Adam has evidence that fires were an important component of historic natural disturbance regimes here, before the Forest Service began encouraging fire suppression. The fires created strong mature stands of oak trees which provided abundant wildlife food and required less water from the underground aquifer than the current forest growth.

Our group was impressed with Adam’s enthusiasm and dedication to the health of our sensitive natural areas and grateful for his generously sharing his time and experience with us. We are looking forward to a followup visit to Mount Joy Pond Natural Area Preserve next spring to see the changes anticipated from the controlled burns. Adam has invited us back for this and to show us around the nearby Cowbane Prairie Natural Area Preserve  which underwent controlled burns last year.

*G1 S1At high risk because of extremely limited and potentially declining numbers, extent and/or habitat, making it highly vulnerable to global extinction or extirpation in the state.

FUN FACT: Maple leaves on a forest floor tend to stay flat and stack on one another trapping moisture which helps protect vulnerable red maples from fire. On the other hand, fallen oak leaves tend to curl as they dry making the leaves more conducive to spreading fire on a forest floor.

– Adrie Voors, Cohort II