Series Begins: Role of Fire in Forest Management

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Above, a prescribed fire is monitored by personnel.
By Jim McCoy District Ranger Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles about the role of fire in forest management. Fire is an interesting thing. We as humans are the only species that manages fire. Try to imagine living in a world where a squirrel or a woodpecker had some control over fire. This seems like a silly thing to ponder but the mere exercise of considering it will reinforce the importance of our monopoly of fire. Science has shown, and common sense and logic will also demonstrate, that we have pretty much always had fire, and that has made all the difference for us. We cook, warm ourselves, create products, generate electricity, transport ourselves and our products all across the globe, and with fire we also manage natural resources. I’m a fairly normal person. I benefit from all of our daily and technically complex uses of fire, much as everyone else does, although I suspect I’m more addicted than most to having a fire in the back yard. I am also a District Ranger with the U.S. Forest Service. My district is the Sylamore Ranger District of the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest located in northcentral Arkansas. These mountains and streams have a storied past. A largely untold part of that story is the part fire has played on this landscape from times too far back to remember. I can’t pretend to know the whole story. In fact, the story of fire is really many different stories. What I can do is tell how all these stories come together and inform our management of forest resources today. Climatologists, botanists, biologists, archeologists, linguists and the like tell us the plants and animals that once lived here were the types that now live in more northerly climates. The story they tell is that once there were glaciers just north of here that influenced our weather and climate and it was cold here. Spruce forests, and the plants and animals associated with them, lived where now we have oaks, hickories and southern yellow pines. They also tell us that fires burned here almost year-round. These were naturally ignited lightning fires, which because of their frequency didn’t so much “rage” across the landscape, but rather just sort of crept from hill to hill, burning lightly over weeks and months. Rains would put them mostly out from time to time, but as conditions dried between rains, a spark would find its way out from under a log or from within a hollow tree to start its spread again. We understand these things to be true today from a large body of research that has been painstakingly pieced together from complicated bits of information from climate, botany, archeological studies, and more. We also know this is logical and simply makes sense. As with everything we “know,” the farther back in time we go the less we really know. So stepping forward in time, from glaciers and spruce forests and extinct giant sloths, into around the early 1800s we start to “know” things with a lot more surety because people wrote them down. The earliest actual observations we have of this area were from naturalists such as Henry Schoolcraft, who traveled to and through this area with the intention of making notes and records of what he found. What he found was far from a virgin landscape. Native Americans such as the Osage who lived here and claimed this land then were active burners. They burned for wildlife. North America is unique in that it had no species other than dogs suitable for domestication. Native peoples developed patterns of existence that wrapped around the habits of the animals that were available rather than domesticating them. The Osage, and the people before them, hunted elk, buffalo, deer, and other species, some now extinct, on the prairies and open woodlands they maintained with fire. This pattern was timeless; nobody knows for sure when it started. We can tell with a good degree of accuracy when the Osage arrived through complicated language evolution studies and by other means, but the fire was burning when they arrived. So while we can’t say when it all started, we can absolutely document when it ended. Native peoples had a very dynamic relationship with fire. In fact in some areas of our miracle planet, native peoples still maintain ancient fire practices. Europeans came here and decided, over time, to begin using the land differently. Plus, over time, there were simply a lot more people of European decent than were peoples of any kind before. So at a certain point, a tipping point, free burning fire became a problem. Cows replaced bison, roads replaced trails, houses and towns replaced seasonal and mobile villages. Fire had to be controlled. It’s very interesting to note that for a long, overlapping period of time European Americans practiced Native types of burning for many of the same reasons. They learned these ways from the Native peoples and, even if they didn’t know it at the time, handed down native knowledge of the land. A fully grown oak tree is a whale of a thing and tough beyond belief, strong enough to withstand tornadoes, fires, droughts, and floods. But it falls easily to a steel saw or axe. As human technology improved and the country grew, demand for timber exploded. Our changing uses of the forest around us is a history lesson in of itself. Over time, we became more interested in the value of the trees we could grow than we were in the ecosystem as a whole and what it could give us holistically. Another way of saying this is we became less interested in buffalo than we were in pine and oak lumber. This isn’t a “good thing” or a “bad thing,” it’s just “the thing” that happened. There’s not much point of assigning value laden labels such as good or bad, because as we all know efforts to change history so far haven’t gone so well, and changing how we perceive it only dampens our ability to learn from it. However, it is worth considering the effects of ancient and historical decisions such as this. What we “know” with a high degree of certainty is that some plant and animal species need fire, and ecosystems are better managed at larger scales. It’s popular to think Native peoples had it right, but that way of thinking misses the point that they changed landscapes to better meet their needs, too. A more accurate way of thinking about this matter is to think Native management of the landscape was simply closer to the way it would have been without people here. That is to say, there would have been fires, but Natives put even more fire on the ground. History is history, and today is today. We have to honor both. So for a person like me who wants to apply fire for specific purposes and to achieve specific objectives, how do I decide what the right answer is? How much fire is too much? What could we measure in an effort to find that answer? Is there such a thing as “good fire” or “bad fire”? What is the balance?

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From the Jan. 15, 2020 issue.

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