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Settin' the Woods on Fire

(Bob Croslin)

It didn’t generate big headlines, but an important organization has relocated its headquarters in Tallahassee. The National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center, a collaboration among several federal agencies, the state of Florida and the Tall Timbers Research Station, is now housed at Tall Timbers’ 4,000-acre campus north of Tallahassee.

Tall Timbers — a non-profit that too few Floridians know about —is a national leader in the science of “prescribed burning,” the scheduled use of managed, short-duration fires to keep forests healthy. Controlled burns prevent the buildup of undergrowth and other material that displace animal and plant species and create a bed of fuel for the kind of out-of-control wildfires that have plagued California and other states. The training center’s presence in Tallahassee is both validation of Tall Timbers’ expertise and an important step in a shift in national fire policy that will make the nation’s forests healthier.

From around 1910 until the late 1970s, it was the federal government’s ironclad policy that forests shouldn’t burn — fire was to be eliminated at all costs. In 1935, the U.S. Forest Service even had a “10 a.m. policy.” If a fire broke out, it was to be extinguished by 10 the following morning.

The Forest Service’s obsession with suppression ignored what Native Americans and many farmers, ranchers and scientists understood about fire’s role in keeping forests healthy. The stop-fire policy served bureaucratic interests well, however, because it created a way to spend money and hire people: The Forest Service, in concert with states, created a massive and expensive fire-suppression infrastructure: Firefighters, bulldozers, planes, firefighting chemicals, towers, ranger stations and road networks. During the Great Depression, the stop-fire policy facilitated the hiring of thousands of unemployed men to fight forest fires — temporarily great for the jobless and the bureaucracy, less so for the forests.

Many states, meanwhile, developed their own firefighting bureaucracies. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has a $2.3-billion annual budget and employed nearly 17,000 firefighters in battling the wildfires that scorched more than 4 million acres this year.

Climate change plays a role in California’s wildfires, but the root cause is “fuel and fuel-building” — grasses, shrubs, trees, dead leaves and pine needles that accumulate in areas that aren’t prescribed-burned or allowed to burn naturally, says Bill Palmer, the Ph.D. zoologist who’s been president and CEO of Tall Timbers since 2012. The media, predictably, focused on climate change in reporting on the fires and California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s public statements, less so on Newsom’s announcement of a 20-year deal with the federal government to double California’s forest and vegetation management efforts. “That whole agency is struggling now to be more profire,” Palmer says, noting that the federal government, since the 1970s, has slowly relaxed its insistence on fire suppression.

Tall Timbers was originally one of a number of plantations created in the late 1800s by wealthy northern families that visited in season to hunt turkey and quail. The northerners were horrified at the practices of the area’s tenant farmers, who understood better than the owners how thinning the forest with controlled burns helped support both agriculture and hunting — and prevented uncontrollable wildfires.

The know-better northerners stopped the burns, then were aghast to find there were fewer quail and turkeys to hunt. The scientist they hired to investigate, Herbert Stoddard, produced a report on quail habitat that detailed the science and virtues of selective burning. And he found a supporter in Henry Baedel, who owned the Tall Timbers plantation and converted it to a nature preserve and research station in the 1960s.

Since then, Tall Timbers has focused on its land conservancy, a game bird and other wildlife research programs and prescribed burning research. Palmer, who’s worked at Tall Timbers since 1996, says its fire program has played an important role as a “convener” — bringing together experts in the science of fire. “We have the best burners in world in Florida and Georgia. But they can be better,” and Tall Timbers is currently developing tools, including a simulator, to train fire professionals, Palmer says. The simulator lets forest managers model terrain, wind and weather conditions, fuel loads and different fire behaviors to conduct effective burns and manage the risks. “We’re working with multiple universities, U.S. Forest Service researchers and Los Alamos National Laboratory to develop a framework that links topography” and other factors down to six-foot increments.

The interagency center will train people from state and federal agencies — including the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service and the Department of Defense — looking for expertise in prescribed burning. Noting that several bills have been filed in Congress to encourage prescribed burning, Palmer says, “One of the things that’s hopeful is that this is bipartisan issue that can lead to better forest stewardship.”

Due in part to Tall Timbers’ leadership, the state of Florida, through the Florida Forest Service, has established prescribed burning as part of its program for managing state lands. “They’re the leading state (forest) agency in the country,” says Palmer. He adds that while prescribed burns on public lands in Florida are increasing, they’re decreasing on privately owned land. Tall Timbers has a program to educate private landowners about prescribed burns. “We are trying to keep Florida as a leader in prescribed fire,” he says.

Sometimes, it’s been said, government makes choices that replace something that worked with something that seemed like a good idea. So it has been with the federal policy of stopping fire rather than using it. It’s taken too long to return to the idea that sometimes, if you smell smoke, it’s good news.

— Mark Howard, Executive Editor


Read more in Florida Trend's December issue.
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