Fire in Eastern Oak Forests Conference – Day 1

Blame Bambi
Blame Bambi. The cute talking animals – a deer, a rabbit and a skunk – were agents of propaganda deployed against hunting and even humans in nature at all. But as John Stowe, one of the keynote speakers at our 6th Fire in Eastern Oak Forests Conference, pointed out, the propaganda was also deployed against fire in the woods. In fairness, this was during a time of war when our country’s leaders feared enemy sabotage in destroying forests. The Japanese did indeed send incendiary balloons toward America, in hopes of setting the woods on fire. It didn’t work, but the aversion to fire stuck.

Born to fight fire
It was part of a general campaign against forest fires, which included Smokey Bear. Again, let’s consider the times and the experience. The US Forests Service was born in 1905 and made its early name fighting terrible fires including the Big Burn in 1910. The science of ecology was not well developed, and it made perfect sense to try to exclude fire. I have no doubt I would have been on the side of the exclusionists, given what was known at the time. But we know more now and fire exclusion is no longer something we can do or should even strive for.

Blame southerners
Stowe talked about other targets of the anti-fire campaign. The only people who wanted to set fires in the forests were arsonists, Indians and southerners, none of whose ideas were respected the respectable scientists. There were even the Dixie Crusaders, who went around the South preaching the gospel of fire exclusion, with disparaging portraits of the “hillbillies” who just liked to set the woods on fire. It was nearly impossible to deny the fire exclusion dogma. Smokey big footed dissent. The great conservationist Herbert Stoddard has his observations in favor of burning ignored or suppressed. Since a picture is worth 1000 words, and I do not want to write 1001 words about this, please refer to the picture I have included. The cover of Harpers 1958. This is how the burners were portrayed. It was not until the 1960s that experience started to overtake the theory and even then, even today, it is hard to advocate for fire. It is much easier to see the flaming failure than the steady benefit.

Get science on the ground
Ben Jones, president of the ruffed grouse federation, was the other keynote speaker. He talked about the importance of getting science on the ground and rejoiced that so many of the 260+ participants at the conference were practitioners. We need knowledge in the mind to be actuated by boots on the ground.

Jones commented that fire is like an animal – maybe a keystone predator (my words) – and lamented that fire in upland oak forests is essentially extinct. Its extirpation is a blow to forest ecology and bringing it back will be useful.

To understand the situation, he recommended “The fire—oak literature of eastern North America: synthesis and guidelines” available as a free PDF from the US Forest Service. I will put the citation in the comments.

Jones emphasized the importance of engaging all stakeholders but mentioned in particular hunters. Even after all these years, some hunters still think that fire harms wildlife. The science is very clear that properly applied fire is the biggest boost we can give to wildlife, but not everybody has got the word.

Some new concepts and new words (who knew?)
Charles Ruffner from Southern Illinois University complained good naturedly that the earlier speakers had used up much of what he wanted to say, but he was correct. He added some details to the history and showed some charts and maps about pre-Columbian fire patterns. He mentioned that lack of fire contributes to acidification of water and soil, since fire produces acid neutralizing ash. He also referred to two reports – a 1992 Bioscience on fire in the oaks and a 1993 GTR about oak regeneration.  Ruffner also mentioned that they are using fire now at Gettysburg, on the round tops, among other places. I will have to inquire.

He also introduced me to two new words. I was familiar with the noun forms, but had not heard them used as adjectives. The first is “mesification” – this is when shrubs shade out grass and forbs and trees shade out the shrubs. This is the deep and dark woods – wonderful in their place, but their place is not everywhere. They are not very productive for wildlife. The other word was “Clementian” succession. I think this is a made-up word. It comes from Frederic Clements, the American ecologist who came up with the linear view of ecological succession that many of us old guys learned in school. It has since been superseded.

I know this is getting way too long, but I need to “memory dump” before it all goes into the “memory hole.”

Next speaker was Ellen Schutzabarger from Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry. She was more interested in organizational and social mismatches. For example, she pointed out the forestry departments were set up to fight fire. It is hard to transition to use fires. She mentioned other challenges, such as lack of capacity, scale problems, built landscapes and that timber, recreation and ecological benefits may not always be in harmony.
Interesting point. She said that public support for fire is broader than we might suppose, but it is not very deep. Among the chief benefits perceived by the public is that they think fire kills ticks. Everybody hates ticks, but there is some doubt that fire is effective against them. Sure, it kills all the ticks it reaches, but they quickly repopulate.

Working with others
Tom Dooley talked about need for partnerships. He sounded a lot like we used to in public diplomacy, emphasizing that we need to find shared aspirations and look to what we can do together instead of the differences we might have.
What we really need is more boots on the ground and how we can get them is through working with others.

Adaptive management
John Wakefield from Pennsylvania Game Commission talked about the need for adaptive management. Conditions will not be what we anticipate, and they will change, often because of our efforts.

He said we need general goals and then try to reach them in adaptive ways. For example, research indicates that pre-settlement forests were about 12% new forests (almost clear) 7% early succession, 10% early closed, 57% late closed and only 14% dense. Today, the dense forests predominate. He talked about how burning can change (restore) some but how it does not work out as they thought. A light fire, for example, does almost nothing to change the dense forest. They need to adapt.

Well that is about all I can recall for now. I know I learn more from conferences that I attend in person than from those I just watch online, but there is a lot to take in. We have a field trip tomorrow.

Presentations –