Benefits of prescribed burning are many, but challenges abound
The use of prescribed fire as a land management tool has deep and ancient roots in South Carolina’s heritage, but conducting prescribed burns is becoming increasingly challenging because of a variety of factors, according to Johnny Stowe, S.C. Department of Natural Resources representative to the South Carolina Prescribed Fire Council.
Properly conducted prescribed burns (also called "controlled burns") have multiple benefits, said Stowe, S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife biologist, forester and heritage preserve manager. Stowe is also a landowner who burns his own land. Prescribed fires help restore and maintain vital habitat for wildlife, including bobwhite quail and other grassland birds, wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, gopher tortoises, and red-cockaded woodpeckers. Besides the many wildlife species that require fire-dependent habitat, many plants thrive only in regularly burned forests. The demise of the longleaf pine forest and associated grasslands, which once made South Carolina one of the best quail hunting states, is tightly correlated to the decrease of woods-burning. Also, plants like the insectivorous pitcher plants, sundews, and Venus’ fly trap—as well as many other plant species, some of them rare—require fire.
"Fire-maintained lands also have a special unique beauty," Stowe said. "The open, park-like vistas of properly-burned lands appeal to many of us."
Stowe can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (803) 419-9374 in Columbia.
While it may seem paradoxical, prescribed fire also enhances public safety, according to Stowe. Prescribed fires reduce or even eliminate fuel loads, thereby making wildfire on that area impossible or unlikely for some time afterwards. And wildfires are less destructive on areas that have been prescribed burned. Wildfires often either lose intensity or go out when they reach areas that have been prescribed burned. It is much better to deal with a predictable amount and direction of smoke at a known time under prescribed conditions in a planned fire that reduces forest fuels, than to deal with a wildfire on that same land, a wildfire that may burn under dangerous weather conditions such as in a drought and in low humidity and high winds.
Prescribed fire is also, along with hunting and agriculture, an essential part of the heritage and character of the South. Every culture that has ever lived in the South has had an ancient tradition of woods burning. The Indians transformed the Southern landscape for thousands of years with fire, and the Africans and Europeans brought with them from the Old World the time-tested practice of using fire to mold the land to their needs.
Sadly, according to Stowe, one of the main threats to prescribed burning is the legacy of Smokey Bear. "Smokey is one of the best-known icons in the United States," Stowe said, "and while part of Smokey’s message always has been, is, and always will be wise—that no one should carelessly or maliciously use fire under any circumstances—Smokey’s legacy is that several generations of Americans view forest fires as universally destructive."
Another key threat to the Southern tradition of prescribed burning as a land management tool, according to Stowe, is South Carolina’s increasingly urban population. Many South Carolinians now come from backgrounds that did not expose them to rural land management activities such as burning, hunting and agricultural operations. Often these folks do not appreciate the multiple benefits to society that these practices provide, nor the long-standing role that they play in the state’s natural and cultural history. Noted conservationist Aldo Leopold correctly observed that one of the dangers of not living on a farm is that you may get the idea that heat comes from the furnace and food from the supermarket.
Land fragmentation, or an urbanizing landscape, goes hand-in-hand with our urbanizing society. Many fire-maintained tracts that once were rural and isolated now abut heavily traveled roads, and commercial and residential "development." Smoke on roads and other sensitive areas are perhaps the biggest hurdles that prescribed burners face.
Also linked to our urbanizing society is the fact that land managers themselves are less likely to come from rural backgrounds, where they formerly gained experience in the judicious use of fire. As veteran land managers retire, the ones taking their place often have less on-the-ground woods-skills than their predecessors. When that trend is coupled with the necessity of burning in a decreasingly rural landscape populated by a high percentage of urban folks, conducting prescribed fires often becomes, or is perceived to be, inordinately difficult.
Air quality is another obstacle, Stowe said. Although air pollution problems mainly emanate from automobile and other engines and coal-fired power plants, these causes are harder to regulate, and so smoke from prescribed burning becomes a convenient "whipping boy." Ironically, prescribed fires often produce less smoke than wildfires, and since in much of our state certain areas are inevitably going to burn, we may be simply buying time by erecting obstacles to prescribed fire in the hopes of improving air quality.
The archaic mindsets of some land managers also pose substantial barriers to conducting prescribed burns, according to Stowe. For example, it is still common to hear some foresters assert that longleaf pine should not be burned until it is out of the "bolting" or "rocket" stage. While it is true that longleaf is most vulnerable to fire immediately after it begins leaping out of the "grass" stage—3-feet high seems to be the most sensitive size, according to Rhett Johnson of the Longleaf Alliance—even trees that size can be burned in the dormant season by a skillful fire manager without causing excessive mortality. Fire in the hands of experienced land managers can be used to thermally prune longleaf saplings; this is especially helpful on sites planted at low densities, where the wide spacing usually encourages well-developed, but undesirable, limbs close to the ground. Burning young longleaf stands also helps keep loblolly pine "wildings" at bay.
Burning only in the dormant season is another outdated practice that prevents land managers from burning as much as they should and could. Certainly growing-season burns generally require greater care and expertise and are not advisable for some situations, but they are ideal for certain sites. While it wouldn’t be prudent to burn bolting longleaf or most fire-suppressed stands in the growing season, on sites with low fuel loads and mature, fire-resistant trees, growing season burns can be ideal for reducing unwanted hardwood species like sweetgum or red maple.
Research by Clemson University has shown that growing-season burns are much more effective at killing undesirable hardwoods, roots and all, than dormant season burns, which may kill some hardwoods, but usually only injure the aboveground portion of the tree (top-kill), leaving the rootstock to re-sprout. Fire can even be used to promote certain hardwoods. Clemson Professor Emeritus Dr. David Van Lear has conducted research that dispels the myth that fire has no place in upland hardwood management. His innovative technique of using fire to promote oaks by suppressing sweetgum, red maple, yellow poplar and other fast-growing but undesirable hardwoods promises to revolutionize hardwood forest restoration on many sites.
Sometimes land managers forget the cardinal rule of advising landowners—that the landowner is the boss, and her or his objectives should drive management, not the advisor’s. Some professionals argue against burning young pine stands because any trees that are killed will result in less than a "fully-stocked" stand. Yet since each landowner’s objectives may differ, it is not rational to assume that each one desires a tree-farm-like tight density of trees aimed at maximizing timber. Many, perhaps most landowners these days, are equally or more interested in wildlife and aesthetics as they are in growing trees. The beauty of prescription fire is that often it can be used to meet all these objectives.
"With prescribed fire, we now stand at a crossroad with a great challenge and opportunity facing us," Stowe said. "At stake are who we are culturally, how much we value the natural Southern landscape, and public safety. We must always heed Smokey’s call to never use fire carelessly or with ill intent. But let’s rekindle and preserve the ancient Southern flame that is now called prescribed fire. By adhering to the principles of carefully burning only within the constraints of the law, we protect our land and culture, as well as ourselves and future generations."
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.