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October 26, 2007

S.C. Prescribed Fire Council joining others to form national coalition

The South Carolina Prescribed Fire Council has joined the state councils of Georgia and Florida to begin developing a national coalition of state prescribed fire councils, with the aim of forming a broader and more cohesive regional and national initiative to promote prescribed fire in appropriate forest ecosystems.

According to Johnny Stowe, S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) representative to and past chair of the South Carolina Prescribed Fire Council, this concept was conceived years ago by the Longleaf Alliance board. When they saw the recent momentum of the state councils of north Florida, southwest Georgia, and South Carolina, they knew it was time to act.

Last June in Atlanta, Scott Wallinger, retired forest industry executive and consultant, and LindsayPinnacle Mtn. burn Boring of The Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichauway, convened a meeting of diverse parties from around the nation who share interest and expertise in prescribed fire issues. The results of this meeting made it evident that there was sufficient interest and concern to pursue some type of broad initiative, something of wider scope than the state fire councils that are growing around the country. The proposed coalition was to complement and support extant state fire councils, not replace them, because the state councils serve a vital function.

Another group, including some of the participants who met in Atlanta, but consisting mostly of people who represent various entities in the Southeastern United States, met last November at the regional Longleaf Alliance Conference in Tifton, Ga., to further explore the concept and gauge the amount of interest among longleaf pine enthusiasts.

In the weeks preceding the conference, many states throughout the Southeast and Midwest were contacted to gauge the level of interest in such an endeavor. Through this initial inquiry, the nascent coalition realized that there is widespread interest in, and a great need for, a coalition of councils. The meeting in Tifton made it even clearer that such a coalition of state prescribed fire councils would have a broad base of support, especially in the Southeast.

During the Longleaf Alliance meeting, presentations were given on: the impacts of proposed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency particulate matter regulations (a specific type of air quality measurements); prescribed fire laws in states with prescribed fire councils; and a proposal for regional education campaigns. A discussion was also held on the concept of forming a united council, or coalition. As a result of that discussion, many ideas and issues were identified that could be more effectively addressed by a broader council. The meeting closed with a unanimous decision by representatives of seven state agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Defense, The Nature Conservancy, private landowners, and several private conservation groups, that a "Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils" should be formed. A scoping committee (led by Frank Cole, a former Fish and Wildlife official and consultant to the group) was formed and charged to carry on the initiative by defining the organizational structure, mission, and prioritization of issues, and to organize an inaugural meeting during 2007 of all coalition partners.

Since then, the group has made great progress on the charges detailed above through e-mails and phone calls. Two more meetings have been held, both at Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichauway Plantation in Newton, Ga.

Several coalition members coauthored a poster that was presented at the Tifton meeting, as well as the Second Fire Behavior and Fuels Conference in Destin, Fla., in March.

A special session was held at the Destin conference to formally launch the Coalition. Mark Melvin, Chair of the Southwest Georgia Prescribed Fire Council, will present a similar poster discussing the rapidly burgeoning Coalition at the International Association of Wildland Fire Conference "Human Dimensions of Wildland Fire" in Fort Collins, Colo., this October.

According to Tara Claghorn, a Penn State University graduate student conducting research on prescribed fire policy, there are now prescribed fire councils extant or developing in 30 states, as well as an international council between Montana and British Columbia, Canada. Our Canadian counterparts, as well as prescribed fire advocates in Mexico, are interested in playing a role in the Coalition. Claghorn says she is "honored to be a part of the team of prescribed fire practitioners dedicated to maintaining the ability to burn for public safety and habitat protection. By joining together, the voice supporting the need for prescribed fire is even louder. I look forward to working and learning together as we educate ourselves and the public about the benefits of prescribed fire."

Stowe said: "We all owe a debt of gratitude to the folks in the Florida and Georgia prescribed fire councils for pioneering the way for the rest of us. When we started up in South Carolina, we were fortunate to have the Florida and Georgia models to build on. Lane Green, director of Tall Timbers Research Station, came to one of our early meetings and generously shared the lessons they had learned along the way, and thus saved us a lot of time and trouble. The Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils will serve the same purpose by saving folks from 're-inventing the wheel,' as well as serving as a clearinghouse for information about protecting the cultural and natural heritage of prescribed fire."

"We also owe a debt to the Longleaf Alliance’s Board of Directors for its foresight and action in developing this concept. If the Coalition is as successful as the Alliance it will be a resounding positive force. And like all successfully-developing initiatives, the Coalition has depended on a few key people to guide and push it along, both behind the scenes as well as formally, and Frank Cole and Mark Melvin have artfully filled that role. Without their energy and dedication we’d not be making the great progress we’ve achieved."

According to Melvin, "Under the direction of the coalition’s scoping committee, sub-committees are currently working on securing funding, defining organizational structure, and planning our first general session. The interest in prescribed fire is evidenced by the growth in state councils, from five in fall 2006 to the 30 states involved now."

DNR protects and manages South Carolina’s natural resources by making wise and balanced decisions for the benefit of the state’s natural resources and its people.

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