At the 4,000-acre Tall Timbers Research Station a few miles north of Tallahassee, they burn the woods. Regularly.
To understand why, go back to the post-Civil War era of the late 1800s. Wealthy northern sportsmen began buying up thousands of acres of farmland and pine forests in the Red Hills Region that stretches northeast from Tallahassee into Georgia. The area is a great breeding ground for game birds, and the northerners consolidated their acreage into massive hunting plantations. During the season, they’d take the train down south, bring along friends, ride out into the woods in wagons and shoot turkey and quail.
The hunting plantations changed the region’s economy — and also has produced some science. The area’s tenant farmers, and the Native Americans who had earlier tilled the same soil, understood how to use fire to mimic what nature did with lightning. In addition to burning land to clear it for cultivation, they also used fire selectively but regularly to thin forests. Less underbrush improved grazing for cattle and hogs, which in the south were allowed to range freely, and made the animals easier to find and manage. The Native Americans and later the farmers understood how varying concentrations of undergrowth helped support many kinds of wild animals that they could hunt for food and hides. And they understood that small, regular fires prevented the kind of thick undergrowth that led to uncontrollable, destructive wildfires.
The northerners were horrified at the burning. Their experience with woods was with the dense, hardwood forests of the north, where a fire in a forest meant disaster, not land management. And so the plantation owners stopped burning — only to find quickly that the bobwhite quail population began declining, leaving them fewer targets on their hunting jaunts.
Smart, wealthy people often have trouble communicating with people they view as socially inferior, but fortunately for them they have enough money to pay scientists or other people they consider “experts” to tell them what they could learn for free. And so it was with the plantation owners. In collaboration with the precursor to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, they financed a study by a biologist, Herbert Stoddard, to figure out how to bring back the quail.
When pinewoods don’t burn frequently, hardwood saplings and brush quickly grow dense underneath the trees. Stoddard found thick undergrowth doesn’t support quail: Chicks hatch and feed best in areas with two years’ worth of undergrowth or less. He produced a landmark report on quail and their habitat in 1931 and became a vocal advocate of burning selectively in the winter and spring.
This “prescribed burning,” however, was not a notion that took the regulatory world by storm. Stoddard’s government bosses balked at letting him mention it in his report. And in fact for about 40 years the federal government took a one-policy-fits-the-entire U.S. approach toward fire: It was bad for wildlife, people and trees. Put it out. Smokey the Bear became a most effective spokes-creature for the policy, however misguided. For his part, Stoddard called the anti-fire campaign “the most ludicrous educational campaign that ever insulted the intelligence of the American people. It was carried on by well-meaning but utterly misinformed persons.”
Stoddard found an ally in Henry Beadel, a plantation owner who before his death in the early 1960s converted his 4,000-acre hunting plantation, Tall Timbers, to a nature preserve and research operation. Since then, Tall Timbers has gained an international reputation for its work in “fire ecology” and habitat management. (It also spun off a land conservation program that has put nearly half of the 300,000 acres of remaining plantation land under conservation easements. It’s a fascinating and beautiful place, and you should visit if you’re near Tallahassee.) And by the late 1970s, despite often intense opposition from the federal government, prescribed burning slowly had gained some credence as a tool in habitat and forestry management.
For the last half-dozen years, however, the wise use of fire again has been at odds with federal policy and regulations. This time, the issue is carbon emissions. Newer Environmental Protection Agency regulations for small particle emissions don’t distinguish between those from a prescribed burn and those from automobiles or power plants. Never mind that the emissions from prescribed burning are minuscule compared to those from a single power plant. Never mind that prescribed burning helps prevent wildfires like those that ravaged parts of Florida a decade ago. And never mind that some endangered species may not survive — a different federal goal — unless forests can be managed with prescribed burning.
Once again, advocates of prescribed burning are busy trying to educate both the public and bureaucrats. Lane Green, Tall Timbers’ executive director, says a big challenge for land managers is explaining the short-term, long-term calculus of prescribed burning. Smoke may be smoke in the short term, but in the long term, prescribed burning appears to recapture more carbon than the burn emits, according to the most recent research. Meanwhile, wildfires emit more carbon than the prescribed burns that prevent them. “We have to make sure regulators understand that,” he says.
Green’s frustrated but hopeful. For natural areas in Florida to thrive, there needs to be more prescribed burning, not less. This time, regulators and land managers “are all better at talking with each other to arrive at solutions that accommodate each other,” he says. “And fire is at center of that discussion.”
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