The Great Lakes Regional Office of the National Park Service came to professors Sarah Johnson and Jonathan Martin to help answer a question: Do natural occurring fires help or hurt vegetation, specifically Canada yew, in the Apostle Islands?

Johnson is assistant professor of natural resources and has been conducting vegetative research in the islands for years; Martin is assistant professor of natural resources and specializes in forestry.

The answer to the park’s question is one piece of the puzzle needed for creating natural resource management policy in the Apostle Islands for co-managing fire, sensitive species, and wildlife.

Canada yew, an evergreen shrub, is uniquely abundant in the Apostle Islands. The deer population on the mainland have significantly reduced the abundance Canada yew. But because some of the islands have few or no deer, Canada yew thrives.

During the summer of 2015, Johnson and Martin hired student research assistants David Moy and Stephanie Kovach and set out to ascertain a better understanding of the influence of slow-burning lightning strike fires on the maritime forests of the islands and the recovery rates of Canada yew.

The faculty-student team read historical records, unearthed clues, and collected extensive measurements including charcoal from soil samples for carbon analysis. “I thought finding charcoal would be like finding a needle in a haystack,” Martin said. “But it turns out there’s a whole lot of needles out there.”

They investigated seven islands in all, piecing together a history of fire on the islands.

“This was not cookie cutter science,” Johnson said. “Sometimes we had to sit down on a log and think through and strategize about our next moves.”

The team anticipates that lightning strike fires are likely to be more common as the region experiences more storms linked with climate change. For their final report, they plan to document relationships of yew with past fire and to make recommendations to the park about fire and yew management.

The two colleagues noted the advantage of working together. “It’s possible to work alone but it is so much more beneficial to work together,” Martin said. “It can create bigger science and it’s more fun.”

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