State and federal agencies are planning a controlled burn at Tallulah Gorge State Park to benefit unique wildlife at one of Georgia’s most unique places.
This prescribed fire will cover 1,300 acres of the northeast Georgia park and adjacent state-owned wildlife management area, as well as neighboring Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests and Georgia Power lands on the gorge’s north side. Areas near heavily used sites such as the park’s campground and interpretive center will not be burned. Organizers plan to conduct the burn this week — tentatively Wednesday — although the timing will be determined by factors such as wind direction and humidity levels.
This will be the seventh prescribed fire in the last 20 years at the gorge, as managers and biologists work to restore and maintain wildlife habitat in and along the two-mile-long canyon near Tallulah Falls.
Prescribed fires, also called controlled burns, involve professionals leading trained crews in burning targeted sites when certain environmental conditions, called prescriptions, and safety measures are met. These burns are not only an effective tool for conserving fire-adapted habitats and rare wildlife, they reduce flammable fuels, lowering the risk of wildfire and protecting people.
At Tallulah Gorge, prescribed fire has improved conditions for species considered high priorities for conservation in Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan. The plan is a comprehensive strategy to conserve native animal and plant species before they become rarer and costlier to save and protect.
Senior wildlife biologist Nathan Klaus of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said the burns have restored much of a rare ecosystem nearly lost from the park – the table mountain pine/pitch pine ecosystem. This forest needs fire to thrive. The regular sweeps of fire that used to occur naturally keep trees thinned and healthy, and competing brush at bay. Fire is also needed to melt the resin and open the cones of both pine species to seed.
Because of prescribed fire, “this tract has undergone profound change with vast areas opening up, wildflowers taking over and tens of thousands of new table mountain pines establishing.” Klaus said. “It’s really a marvel to witness.”
Other plants gaining ground include white-fringeless or monkeyface orchid, federally listed as threatened, and roundleaf sundews, a carnivorous species that eats small insects. Although rare in north Georgia, these plants are found along the gorge rim and need the sunny conditions prescribed fires provide.
Animals have responded, too. For example, black bears have taken note of the spread of wild blueberries the burns have spurred. Park staff are seeing more bears in the wilder parts of the park.
David Vinson, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, is excited about the joint burn with state partners. “It demonstrates how working together, and with public support for GoodFire, we can bring back and protect populations of rare ravens and peregrine falcons, and help bats that roost in the cliffs and trees that line the gorge,” Vinson said.
Park Manager Jennifer Jones also is looking forward to the ecological benefits the fire provide. Gorge visitors are “typically understanding of the importance of fire,” Jones said. “They know we are working diligently with burn teams to ensure everyone’s safety, even when they see or smell smoke.”
In addition to other fire and safety protocols, smoke management is part of all prescribed burns. Planning helps identify sites such as hospitals and nursing homes with smoke-sensitive populations. Fire managers also select conditions to minimize smoke impacts, burning only under appropriate conditions.
The burn unit is across from safe overlook spots on Tallulah Gorge’s southern rim, including just east of U.S. 441. The Forest Service and Georgia DNR’s Wildlife Resources and State Parks & Historic Sites divisions will conduct the burn. Participants will also include the Georgia Forestry Commission, Georgia Power and The Nature Conservancy.