Research during the past four decades has shown that
fire is a natural agent which has been shaping the composition
and boundaries of forests and prairies long before
the appearance of modern man in such areas. In America,
Indians often set fires for purposes such as driving game,
clearing forest underbrush and prairie farmland, obtaining
firewood, signaling, controlling insects, and increasing
the berry crop (Ahlgren and Ahlgren, 1960).
Failure to recognize that ecosystems may be fireadapted
has resulted in management practices that threaten
the balance of living organisms within such ecosystems.
Odum (1971) includes fire as an important limiting factor
along with other agents such as water, light, moisture, and
Two extreme types of forest fires are crown fires and
surface fires. The former often destroys all vegetation
and may consume humus so as to expose mineral soil. Surface
fires can move through groves of mature trees without noticeably
damaging them, eliminating some components of the
understory and creating favorable conditions for the development
of others. Light surface fires often reduce the
flammability of the forests, speeding the decay process, and
creating a seedbed favorable for the reseeding of species
requiring lesser humus accumulation.
Scientists and the public have regarded fire as a
destructive, wholly negative event which is to be avoided
at all costs. Reversing such prejudices has generally progressed
well enough among scientists, and the relatively young
area of study known as fire ecology now has many disciples.
Recent events in certain National Parks suggest that the
public, given the facts and concepts, is willing to accept
the current views regarding the importance of fire.
The first project to include the use of wildfire as
a management tool on National Forest lands was initiated in
1972 for a portion of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness (SBW)
of northern Idaho and western Montana (Aldrich and Mutch, 1972).
Under this policy, fire control is brought into operation
when fires threaten to cross the boundary of the study area
and when fire danger rating is high. Extensive investigations
in plant ecology indicate that the vegetational composition
of the SBW is showing characteristics which threaten the
continued existence of the highly diversified vegetation of
this region, due to the fire control policies effective since
the 1930's (Habeck, 1972).
The purpose of this paper is to investigate the nature
of the role of fire in northeastern Minnesota, regarding its
influence primarily on vegetation. Paleobotanical research
in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) and study of
vegetational characteristics provide a history of fire and
plant cover for certain areas of northeastern Minnesota.