Academic Writing: Prescribed Burns

Some weeks ago I posted one of my academic papers from my graduate coursework in Environmental Education and Natural Resources. I am finding, roughly six months out of school, that I miss academic writing!  I know that sounds crazy, but I love information and the synthesis of it following a period of researching a topic. Having spent a great deal of time formulating my papers, I thought I would share this piece I wrote in 2015. It is entitled:

Fire as  Management Tool in Our Forests

This paper was part of  course requirements for a graduate course called Human Impacts on our Forests. I have long been interested in the Prescribed Burning of our lands and this piece was juggled from my memory recently as I just spoke to 135 second graders on Forest Stewardship, couched as a presentation entitled “Treating the Forest as our Friend.”

Additionally, this past week, my coworkers at the Land Trust for which I work performed a prescribed burn on one of the properties we help to conserve.

My paper was to be persuasive and informative. I hope you enjoy it.

Do the words “uncontrolled wildfires” cause you fire? Have you ever cancelled a vacation due to the area being consumed by wildfire?

Both are true for me!  In 2012, we cancelled a family vacation to the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park Colorado due to the raging wildfire that were rapidly approaching the park. We were afraid! We did not want to take unnecessary chances, so we cancelled our trip. Good thing, too, because part of Estes Park burned that summer (1). How sad and scary for the residents of that popular and beautiful destination!

Fire is dangerous! Fire is life threatening! Fire is bad! The first two statements are certainly true! But, fire despite its destructive properties, is not always bad! We need to return to our forests (and, prairies) to a state where they can naturally regenerate. This can be done using a controlled, low intensity, permit yielding, methodically planned, and approved method. This method is called a Prescribed Burn! And, we need to use it!  The 2005 Comprehensive Hixon Forest Plan recommended the use of prescribed burns (8). It stated that without management, Hixon Forest would cease to exist as soon as ten to thirty years in the future! We are there! It is 2015! Furthermore, despite the recommendations, I have not been able to find any documentation of prescribed burns occurring in the forest with any regularity. We must take action!

Therefore, I am writing you about supporting prescribed burns. Forests have long been part of our history, here in Wisconsin. It is difficult to find a period of time when some part of our economy, socialization, or ecology has not been affected by events shaped by Wisconsin woodlands. However, our management of forest has changed.

First, let me remind you of how fire was used historically as management tool in forested areas. For nearly ten thousand years, fire was used by the indigenous Peoples of Wisconsin (1).  Fire was used as a frequent practice by Native Americans to drive game, increase visibility, and maximize the foraging of food such as berries (1).  It is thought that all Wisconsin acreage was burned every four to five years, starting either by lightning strike or by ignition by indigenous people (2,9). These low intensity, frequent fires were common to our area prior to European Settlement and found helpful to manage native species. Species, both plants and animals, became dependent on fire to sustain their habitats (4). The diversity of species has declined in Hixon Forest (8). It is not a stretch to blame some of the lack of diversity on the absence of fire (4).

Our European ancestors, once settled in Wisconsin, began to manage the land differently. With the advent of intense logging, high grading was used frequently. Wildfires because frequent but destructive, burning hot while consuming slash and remaining trees. The increased settlement and hot fires, led to fire suppression (3). The “fire regime was strongly altered after the area was settled by European immigrants.” In fact, in some places fire was suppressed completely (3). Suppression of fire has remained true for our local area, with few exceptions, since the 1930’s or over three-quarters of a century. Clearly, the value of fire in managing forested land was not, and has not, been seen as useful.

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Pine Stand at the Holland Sand Prairie, © Carol Labuzzetta, 2019

And, what might be that value be, you ask? There are plenty of benefits to prescribed burns. The phrase prescribed burns refers to purposely setting regulated fires (5). Please refer to the following list of the benefits to using a prescribed burn for forest management:

  • Help restore native naturally occurring communities, ecosystems, and habitats (4)
  • Restores eco-systems to historic conditions by doing the following:
    • Controlling invasive species
    • Preserving biological diversity
    • Improving wildlife habitat
      • Are you concerned for animal safety? Contrary to popular belief, prescribed burns do not harm wildlife (2). In fact, it may improve components of habitat such as nesting conditions and increased availability of preferred food sources (2,5).  The burn produces a thicker, younger cover to be used for future nests and burrows (2).
  • Manages Wilderness Fuels
    • This refers to reducing the amount of ground debris and dead debris that accumulates when forest go unmanaged or managed by other means.  The debris that accumulates acts as a more hazardous fuel that burns hotter and ignites in an uncontrolled manner. This extremely destructive fire is the type that humans and their communities can be protected from with regular use of prescribed burns (2). This is what as know as wildfire!
  • Minimizing the spread of disease and insect pests
  • Removing threatening or unwanted species
  • Improving habitat ecology
  • Recycling nutrients back into the soil
  • Promoting growth of native plants that had adapted to the stimulus of fire
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Pasque Flowers at the Holland Sand Prairie, © Carol Labuzzetta, 2019

Furthermore, using prescribed burns helps to promote sustainable forestry (6). We need to put recommendations and plans to use prescribed burns into action! The Department of Forest Ecology and Management’s Forestry Facts (1995) states that prescribed burning can be a valuable forest management tool (7). The reasons stated in their document include: reducing unwanted vegetation and logging debris, preparing sites for tree planting or direct seeding and perhaps most importantly, reducing the potential for destructive wildfires by lowering fuel accumulations (7).

I wonder if the residents near Hixon Forest understand that their homes are at a greater risk of burning from wildfire than from a prescribed burn! It is true! Prescribed burns are controlled, regulated, planned, and monitored! Wildfires are just that – WILD – and very difficult to control (5). The media exposes us all to the danger of these wildfires when they occur. Instead, we need to expose the public to the benefits of controlled fire.

Why is Hixon Forest in need of prescribed burns? As of the assessments in 2005, the most acreage in Hixon Forest contained mature oak stands. It was cited that there was much wood fiber nearing the end of its lifespan in 2005. At that time, the most frequently occurring natural community was dry prairie. Hixon also consisted of (and , still does) some Blufflands. All three of these findings are consistent with areas conducive to prescribed burns (4,5,& 9).  The oak stands need regeneration and fire can provide that by killing off shrubs and lesser tolerant trees (5,9). Dry prairie and blufflands also respond well to prescribed burns that, in turn, assist in regenerating native species.

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Prescribed Burn at the Holland Sand Prairie as performed by Mississippi Conservancy Crew.        © Carol Labuzzetta, 2019

As suggested in the 2005 Comprehensive Hixon Forest Plan and numerous other resources, regular prescribed burns are a key component of a comprehensive forest management plan (8,9). At this time, you may be wondering who can be consulted for help on planning a prescribed burn. Recently, prescribed burns have been reinstituted on some lands in La Crosse County. Mississippi Valley Conservancy has been conducting prescribed burns since 2006 on select areas (4). The Conservancy may be consulted as a resource on how to start the process of re-instituting prescribed burns in Hixon Forest, and other parts of the Driftless Area of Wisconsin.

Quercus Land Stewardship Services is another group that uses fire to assist in the management of Wisconsin forests (10). They are committed to using fire as a tool to restore the ecological foundations of our forests (10).  The Wisconsin Prescribed Fire Council can also be utilized to help local communities understand the benefits of prescribed burns and assist in re-instituting them as a necessary part of forest management (10,11).

One way to move past our fear of fire as a land management tool is to learn more about it. In 2015, the Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge offered a free event that discussed the environmental benefits of prescribed burns in our area (11).  Those participating in prescribed burns are given training and burns are not conducted unless specific environmental and meteorological conditions are met. Regular prescribed burns are a key component of a comprehensive management plan for forests (9).  If you are in need of additional information to convince you to support the use of fire in forest management, please consult my list of references  or visit the Lake States Fire Science Consortium for further reading materials and webinars at: http://www.lakestatesfiresci.net.

References: Fire as  Management Tool in Our Forests

Disclosures:

This paper was written in the spring of 2015 as a course requirement. Citations were not required to be made using any specific style (APA, MLA, etc.).  Therefore, I used a numbering system. As long as the professor could find the citation, it was an acceptable way of notation.

I had no affiliation with any of the organizations named in this paper at the time it was written. At this time, I find that fact very amusing, lending a sense of destiny to the piece now. On Tuesday of this week, I attended my first prescribed burn as a bystander and photographer.

 

 

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