We interviewed Dr. Charles "Butch" Taylor, Jr. during his final year of service before retirement. We aimed to capture the career's worth of fire science knowledge he acquired while working at the Texas A&M Agrilife research station in Sonora, Texas. Butch was one of the founding board members of the Great Plains Fire Science Exchange. We hope you enjoy the video.
Written by Jacob Redway, Oklahoma State University, class of 2015.
Committed. Professional. Humble. Kind. These are a few ways people have described David Engle, Regents professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Oklahoma State University. These sentiments are shared not only by his immediate peers but also by professionals across the country. As a result, Engle has received the 2014 Sustained Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Range Management (SRM). According to SRM, this honor is given to individuals who have exhibited long-term contributions to SRM and range management. Engle’s lifetime contribution to the field began many years ago in New Mexico.
"I grew up in southeastern New Mexico,” Engle said. “I wasn't from a farm or ranch." Instead, Engle spent a lot of years working on farms and ranches until he began his undergraduate studies at Abilene Christian University.
"I was actually a pre-med major through my freshman year,” he said. “I realized by the end my of sophomore year that wasn't really something that I wanted to do.” Engle said spending hours inside a lab kept him from his interest in the outdoors. Then a friend talked Engle into taking a range management course. The summer after taking the range course, Engle started working with the U.S. Forest Service on a fire crew. "One of my bosses there took me around one day,” Engle said. “I didn't know anything about it, but he was showing me different range grasses and plants and how they responded to management. I just thought that was fascinating.”
The fire crew job, paired with the range course, led Engle to change his major to range science. He said the decision connected him to the years he worked on ranches in New Mexico. He graduated from ACU in 1972 with his degree in range science. After serving a year in the National Guard, Engle decided to pursue a graduate degree from ACU in wildlife biology, graduating in 1975. He then went on to get his doctorate in range science at Colorado State University, graduating in 1978.
Engle’s first job after graduating was as an assistant professor at South Dakota State University. He taught there for four years before moving to Oklahoma State University, where he taught and did research for nearly 25 years. In 2005, he accepted a department head position at Iowa State University, where his wife had accepted a job.
In 2008, Engle returned to OSU where he resumed teaching as a Regents professor. He also became the director of the Water Resource Center in OSU’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. He currently spends half his time as director of the center and half as a professor. Engle said the function of the center is to “fund and promote research and outreach about water resources."
Engle is known for pioneering several practices and areas of research in rangeland management. "When I came to Oklahoma, I realized there was a lot of opportunity working with fire, wildland fire and fire on rangelands,” he said. He began to study why fire was lacking on the landscape in Oklahoma, despite fire being a historical disturbance there. Engle said many people believed fire harmed the landscape. He said people are beginning to recognize fire as beneficial and necessary. "That's something that has changed in my career,” he said. “I hope that I have contributed to that."
Engle said he also studied ways to combat the Eastern Redcedar problem, which began encroaching upon the Oklahoma landscape in the 1980s. During that time, fire was suppressed, which led to the Redcedar problem, Engle said. Samuel Fuhlendorf, an OSU Regents professor who works with Engle, said Engle is most known for his studies on Eastern Redcedar trees. According to Fuhlendorf, Engle has been instrumental in contributing to the understanding of how fast cedars grow and how they affect other vegetation. Fuhlendorf and Engle coined the term “green glacier” as a moniker for the cedar problem. “It moves real slow,” Fuhlendorf said, “and you don’t notice it.” Engle said despite creating awareness and documentation on the Eastern Redcedar, the problem still exists and continues to proliferate. "But, at least folks know it is a problem,” Engle said. “It's up to the next generation to try and reverse that."
Fuhlendorf and Engle together have conducted research concerning how fire and grazing interact instead of compete with one another. “A lot of people think of it as fuel versus forage,” Fuhlendorf said. “In reality, recognizing that if you burn, and especially if you burn patches, the animals congregate on those patches. That creates heterogeneity, which creates good wildlife habitat and allows you to accumulate fuels somewhere else where you can burn later.” Fuhlendorf and Engle developed this practice in the early 2000s and have done research on different areas related to it.
Sherry Leis, a fire ecologist at Missouri State University and the coordinator of the Great Plains Fire Science Exchange, said Engle often has worked on projects for which the science had not been discovered yet. Engle advised Leis during her graduate studies in range management at OSU. "He did a project looking at the effects of fire on barbed wire,” she said. “It doesn't seem all that important, but there were a lot of people who didn't want to use fire because they thought it would ruin their fences. He's interested in working on problems that have come from the management community,” Leis said.
Currently, Engle works along other Oklahoma researchers and the National Science Foundation in an effort to build a social, ecological observatory network. He said the network will be similar to the Oklahoma Mesonet, a weather observation network. The observatory network will monitor how people interact and react with vegetation growth and water use. It will allow users to see real-time ecological crop reports from areas across Oklahoma. The reports also will include people’s opinions and forecasts based on the data.
Engle said one thing he has enjoyed during his career was learning the intricacies of range management. "That's just fascinating, all those different wrinkles,” he said. “I've learned that about agriculture in general, but specifically in my case, rangelands. It's so multidimensional, you can never learn it all. It's all just fascinating. The little parts are fascinating." He also has enjoyed working with and learning about people. "I've learned that my prejudgments on why humans do things, with respect to rangelands in particular, haven't been totally right,” Engle said.
While Engle has played a major role in progressing the field of rangeland management, he also has had an impact on mentoring students and leaders in the field. When Fuhlendorf started working at OSU in 1997, Engle became his mentor. “He told me what I should be working on without being overbearing,” Fuhlendorf said. “He let me do my own thing, but he also kept me on the right path for my career.” Fuhlendorf said Engle also does a good job of balancing teaching with research. “He's always argued that we can't tolerate anyone who’s not good at both,” Fuhlendorf said. “We need to have people who can weave research and teaching together and excel at both."
Derek Scasta, an advisee of Engle and a doctorate student in rangeland ecology and management at OSU, said “Engle has developed and cultivated many of the leaders in agriculture.” Scasta said students from at least 20 states in the United States and a province in Canada have come through OSU’s fire program and under the instruction of Engle. “He’s taught me how to be a good scientist,” Scasta said, “and how to evaluate any of our studies.” Scasta said Engle also has taught him skills that are harder to define, including how to communicate, be a leader and balance life. "I would describe Dave as one of the most genuine and authentic people that you would meet,” Scasta said. “He tends to be very encouraging and positive. He works hard to help people in any way that they need help,” he added.
Leis said Engle is committed to his students’ success. “I always felt like what I was doing was important to him,” she said. “He had gotten very sick toward the end of when I was working on writing my thesis. He didn’t want me to get behind. I actually went out to his house a couple of times to work on things because he wasn’t able to come into the office. That speaks to how he values his students’ work,” Leis said.
Leis said Engle was one of the reasons she considered attending OSU. While she was interviewing for graduate positions, Engle went to see Leis’s worksite in Fort Sill, Okla. She was researching the effects of military disturbance on rangeland. “We were out in the range, and he immediately started teaching me plants and helping me learn plants,” Leis said. “I hadn't even really committed to being a student yet. That's something that really stuck with me and helped me make the decision to come to Oklahoma State, even though I had a couple other offers,” she added.
Leis said Engle is humble. “He doesn't want to take credit for things that he really should,” she said. “He often works behind the scenes. He may be the inspiration or create the inspiration for people to work on certain things. That's a really important role.”
Scasta said the Lifetime Achievement Award shows how Engle is recognized across the nation. “Everybody has respect for him,” Scasta said. “It’s not always like that.”
Engle said receiving the award from the SRM means a lot to him. “I stand among giants as I look at the other people who have won this award within the society,” he said. “I'm really humbled because I don't think that I'm like those people." He said receiving the award really meant one thing. "I joke because I tell people it means that I'm an old guy,” Engle said. “You don't get that award unless you’re really old and been around for long time."
Despite being an “old guy,” Engle said he still enjoys learning. "It's intellectual, but it’s fun,” Engle said. “Not a lot of people can say that your life's work has been that way. I'm really fortunate. It's a blessing to be named to that award, but it's more of a reflection of what I've enjoyed doing and how that's paid me already."
GPE: What fire ecology topics related to grasslands get you most excited as a researcher, and why?
This is a tough question—there are a lot of things that get me excited. I have focused primarily on how fire affects the fauna in grasslands to date. My lab has been exploring fire effects on Texas horned lizards, harvester ants, other insect species, and most recently, bobwhite quail. However, topics such as seasonal fluctuations in flammability, small-scale heterogeneity in fire severity, heat tolerance, and fire history are of interest to me.
In particular, I am interested in how small differences in heat tolerance among species shapes post-fire insect communities. Grassland fires don’t always heat the soil to lethal temperatures, so even small differences in heat tolerance can make big differences in survival. I am also interested in understanding how patchy mosaics of fire shape insect communities on the 1m^2 scale.
GPE: What long term goals do you have for your research lab?
In the future, I hope to explore some of the topics I mentioned above in-depth. I also hope to continue my work on fire and insects. However, one of the most exciting parts of having a university lab is that I get to mentor students; my biggest long-term goal is to create and foster a research environment where students can ask exciting questions and become the future of fire ecology.
I am passionate about teaching and training future fire practitioners, and Texas Tech’s undergraduate Natural Resources Management majors are passionate about fire use and excited to learn how to safely and effectively apply fire to the landscape. One of my biggest long-term goals is to build a TTU prescribed burning training program, where our students can gain fire exposure and experience and be competitive for fire management positions across the region.
GPE: What are the most important questions we need to answer for grasslands today?
How do we conserve grassland function and integrity in a rapidly developing world and changing climate?
I think there are three very intertwined topics that are going to be important going forward: 1) fire mitigation and suppression, 2) climate change, and 3) fire management and use. For all three of these topics, education of practitioners, landowners, and other stakeholders is an important component of bringing about change.
GPE: Can you describe one or two findings from your research career related to grasslands and fire?
We recently completed a study led by Rachel Granberg that examined the effects of fire on Texas horned lizards in central Texas grasslands. She found that lizards tended to use burned areas more frequently. She also modeled survival of lizards and found that female lizard survival depends primarily on a lack of leaf litter, as created by fire. My lab also recently completed a project led by Anna Meyer that examined the effects of fire on harvester ant colony size, abundance, and calorie content. Harvester ants are prey items of the Texas horned lizard, so their availability and nutritional content are relevant to its conservation. We found no effect of fire on colony size or abundance; however, ants from burned areas contained fewer calories than ants from unburned areas. While ants from burned areas may be less nutritious, burning is still an important tool in horned lizard conservation.
GPE: What advice can you offer to students considering fire research as a career? What key things should they do to prepare?
My advice would be to go out and experience fire. Take a summer to work on a crew or get involved in prescribed burning. No amount of reading or research can make up for that experience.
GPE: You were nominated by Al Steuter for this interview. Al wanted to know your thoughts on: what are the prospects for producing cellulosic ethanol from native grasslands or native plant materials on cropland?
In my opinion, producing cellulosic ethanol from native perennial grasses is one big step closer to reality. In 2014, three commercial scale plants (one in KS, two in IA) were opened that produce ethanol from cellulose, and a fourth (in IA) is near completion. One of these plants is using distillers grain as the feedstock, and two of the plants (as well as the plant that is nearing completion) are using corn stover. Although perennial grasses like switchgrass are not being used yet, the process to produce ethanol from corn stover and switchgrass is very similar. If these plants prove to be profitable, I think it’s only a matter of time before we see perennial grasses being used to produce ethanol.
GPE: Please tell us about how you chose grasslands and rangeland topics to study.
I grew up hunting and fishing in the Loess Hills of central Nebraska and was very interested in the hands-on side of wildlife and fisheries. In college, I gained a much better appreciation for the importance of managing habitat. I dropped out of college during my junior year to work and save money to get married. To put my wife through graduate school, I managed a restaurant. I returned to college with a more clear direction for what I wanted to study. I saw many of my wildlife friends getting jobs where they were managing people. I had done that in the restaurant business, so I decided I wanted to manage the natural resources as well as stay involved in agriculture. Grassland ecology and management was the clear choice for me. I went to graduate school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UN-L), completing an M.S. focusing on the effects of fire and other management practices on tallgrass prairie and a Ph.D. focusing on the phenology, morphology, and nutritive value relationships in native and exotic perennial grasses.
GPE: Your publications list includes a diverse set of topics such as fire and grazing effects on erosion, herbicide trials, and wildlife habitat management (quail). What would you say is your favorite topic to learn about and why?
When I was growing up in a small town in central Nebraska, people would often ask me which sport was my favorite. My typical reply was whatever is in season. That’s a little how research is for me. Perennial grass systems are very complex, so the research opportunities are vast and I really enjoy working with a diversity of topics. Conducting research in many different subject matters keeps me interested and excited. I’ve published in about 45 different scientific journals and the variety has provided a lot of spice to my research life. During the past 13 years I’ve been entrenched in perennial grasses for bioenergy. It has been very exciting research and it’s really an honor to be on the ground floor of working to potentially develop new sources of energy and transportation fuel for our nation.
GPE: Where does fire fit in your ecological interests?
I had the privilege of taking a grassland ecology class with Dr. Jim Stubbendieck at UN-L. He ignited my interest in fire (pun intended). I then did my M.S. with Dr. Steve Waller at UN-L and Dr. Bob Masters with USDA-ARS in Lincoln, NE. Bob was an excellent fire practitioner, invested time to teach me about prescribed fire, and allowed me to learn about the art and science of applying prescribed fire. My first faculty position was at Texas Tech University where I had the honor to fill the position previously held by Dr. Henry Wright, the father of applying prescribed fire to grassland ecosystems. Working at Texas Tech gave me an incredible appreciation for the legacy that Dr. Wright and Dr. Carlton Britton have had on prescribed fire through their students (Al Steuter, Bob Masters, Guy McPherson, Allen Rasmussen, Steve Bunting, Chuck Stanley, and John Weir to name a few). Additionally, I own about 45 acres of native prairie and fire is one of management tools we use at home to reduce woody plants, so fire fits very well into my ecological interests.
GPE: For graduate students considering a career with ARS, do you have any thoughts about the pros and cons they should consider that you would like to share?
USDA-ARS is a great organization and I’d encourage any graduate student to consider a career with ARS. A couple of pros to point out are the opportunity to focus on research and the opportunity to conduct long-term research. As a research scientist with ARS, I have one primary job: conduct high priority, mission-driven research. I don’t have a teaching appointment or an extension appointment, but I can pursue those activities if the opportunities arise. Many ARS scientists can conduct long-term research projects that are difficult to conduct in other academic positions. For example, we have a long-term project comparing switchgrass production for bioenergy with dryland corn that is now in year 18.
GPE: What are the most important questions we need to answer for grasslands today?
How do we keep grasslands, especially our limited acres of native grasslands, from being converted to cropland or improved pasture? Although grasslands are profitable right now, how do we ensure grasslands will remain grasslands when livestock prices decline.
GPE: Al was nominated by Chris Helzer for this interview. He commented that Al was really one of the first to research pyric herbivory or patch burn grazing, but he doesn’t often get recognized for that. Chris wanted to know more about the genesis of Al’s ideas to start combining fire and bison grazing.
Please tell us about how you began learning about the synergy of fire and grazing.
I received my MS and Ph.D. at Texas Tech University conducting research on the ecological role and management applications of fire for suppressing woody plants on South Texas and North Texas rangelands. I had the distinct privilege of doing this work as a student of Dr. Henry A. Wright – the guru of rangeland fire science of the 1970’s – 1990’s. My first post-graduate school job was with The Nature Conservancy as a research and management associate on their Samuel H. Ordway, Jr. Memorial Prairie – at the time a 7,800 ac Northern Mixed Prairie preserve in north-central South Dakota. Other than a scrubby windbreak at the headquarters, there was one equally scrubby escaped Russian Olive tree in one of the pastures. Needless to say woody plant control was not going to be an important priority of a prescribed burn program. Not to mention that prescribed fire was a subject that released the wrath of the neighbors and most of the regional range management professionals of the time.
Most of the preserve was leased to local ranchers for summer cattle grazing. However, about a quarter of Ordway Prairie was leased by a bison rancher who maintained a year-round herd of bison in two pastures, one for summer grazing and one for winter grazing. Bob Hamilton [TNC Tallgrass Prairie Preserve fame] – also newly graduated with an MS from Emporia State University – had been hired as the summer intern by our boss Mark Heitlinger who was working out of the Minnesota Field office of TNC. During the next years the three of us conspired: first, to replace cattle lease grazing with TNC owned bison herds on their large grassland preserves (some not yet acquired); second, to initiate landscape scale recreations of the Great Plains Fire-Bison Interaction that had been described in general terms by early naturalists and ecologists; and third, to encourage and support both basic and applied research on these TNC preserves to extend the state-of-the-art of range management.
A particularly productive brain-storming session occurred overlooking the South Unit of the Cross Ranch Preserve, ND. I’m sure Bob and Mark remember that exciting day with the same fondness as I do.
GPE: How did you get started working with landowners and burn cooperatives in Nebraska?
Nature Conservancy staff at the Niobrara Valley Preserve began using prescribed burning on the preserve in the fall of 1984 – shortly after my arrival. Our hope was that our neighbors would see the value of RxB in suppressing woody plant expansion out into the Sand Hill rangeland. Again the most common stance of resource managers in the Nebraska Sand Hills was that fire was a destructive force and a dangerous tool. TNC staff on the Niobrara Valley Preserve persisted and even expanded the RxB program on the preserve by co-developing, co-teaching and hosting the TNC Fire School for land managers from around the country. Again, Mark Heitlinger was a primary developer of the course with logistical support from the Niobrara staff.
Implementation of the Fire Bison Interaction and woodland management program provided many opportunities for RxB in spring, summer and fall. However, there continued to be little neighborhood by-in. It was the NRCS/landowner supported RxB program (Prescribed Burn Taskforce) in the central Nebraska loess hills in and around Custer County, followed by a similar effort in the Loess Hills (Loess Canyons Rangeland Alliance) in and around Lincoln County Nebraska, that initially provided successful landowner driven examples of fire as a modern land management tool in Nebraska. Although landowners along the Niobrara remained cool to using fire as a management tool, the Niobrara Valley Preserve was an early participant in the new Interagency/TNC effort known as the Fire Learning Network. In 2009 we finally incorporated the Niobrara Valley Prescribed Fire Association with an all private landowner board of directors. The NVPFA was actively supported by the Nebraska Game and Parks Through their office in Bassett. The NVPFA is designed to provide RxB training and equipment to landowners in seven counties along the Niobrara River.
GPE: You served on the very first Great Plains Fire Science Board of directors. As you have watched shift from proposal to implementation, what have you found most valuable for the fire work you are involved in now?
I think the training materials and topic review papers are valuable for training landowners in prescribed burning and giving them in-depth materials on the ecology and management of specific grassland types.
GPE: How did you come to work in the world of grassland ecology?
After three years in the Marine Corps – which included a tour in Vietnam – the resilience and solitude of the remaining native Great Plains grasslands became my refuge, and their conservation my life’s work.
GPE: Where does fire fit in your ecological interests?
Fire and grazing ecology are at the top of my professional interests. Early in my Masters program under Dr. Henry Wright at Texas Tech University I realized that I might be able to make my living doing what the earliest human cultures did – using fire as a tool. I thought I could handle that.
GPE: Describe your land management style? How do you go about instituting adaptive management?
I have a minimalist management style. I don’t want to control everything that goes on in the landscape, but only mitigate for those natural forces which no longer function as they were evolved to function. For example, fragmentation, the loss of large predators, and ecological processes associated with fire. As for managing large grazers, the most important decision is to make sure the stocking rate is appropriate for meeting your landscape objectives. The stocking rate and season of use are intimately tied to fire management since the fine fuel load, distribution and phenology are the result of grazing intensity and distribution and season of use.
GPE: What are the most important questions we need to answer for grasslands today?
How do we maintain grasslands within agriculture and trade policies that incentivize their conversion to cropland.
John Weir was recently awarded the Henry Wright lifetime achievement award by the Association for Fire Ecology. John has played an instrumental role in forming and advocating for burn associations and training new fire ecologists and agency staff in the use of prescribed fire. We thought you might like to learn a little more about John.
John Weir, Research Associate at Oklahoma State University, was recently awarded the Henry Wright Lifetime Achievement award from The Association for Fire Ecology.
How did you come to get interested in working with fire?
Honestly, I liked to set stuff on fire when I was a kid so it comes naturally. It did start at an early age. When I was in Jr. High, I also noticed how wildfires impacted the trees and the grass grew back, and I knew Native Americans burned a lot. So, I kept putting things together and figured out that fire was important. Then when I went to college, I got to help with a NRCS [Natural Resource Conservation Service] burn that was exciting. Then going to Texas Tech, I got to burn a lot with Dr. Henry Wright and work on several fire research projects; that really got me going even more. Then, I ended up at Oklahoma State running the OSU Range Research Station and fire was very central to the research and work going on there, so I just fit right in and have not looked back since.
Please describe your professional interests and expertise related to wildland fire?
My main interests are prescribed burn associations and how to get more fire on the land, especially in private land settings. I really enjoy training and showing people how to burn safely and effectively. On a research and fire ecology level, I like working with season of burn impacts and continually learning how important fire is to all aspects of the ecosystem.
What changes have you seen in the fire landscape over your career?
I have seen cedars and other woody plants increase dramatically, but the greatest thing I have seen is the increased use of prescribed fire across the state of Oklahoma and the region. This is noted by the number of burn associations, acres being burned, importance of fire to NGOs, state and federal agencies, and really just how much interest in fire has increased over the past 25 years.
How has fire science changed how fire is being used at Oklahoma State University over time?
Fire science has had a huge impact on fire use at OSU. It has increased the amount and types of research being done. There is more research going on with fire at all levels, from below ground level to birds and butterflies flying around and everything in between.
What are the most important questions we need to answer for grassland fire ecology today?
One is to continue to work on fire history to show how much fire was actually on the ground and secondly continue to look at season of burn impacts to specific plants (native and invasive) and plant communities.
Can you describe a particular finding that you think has been ground breaking for grassland management?
I think the patch burn work that has been done is so important and instrumental. It's not a new concept, it's just proving what Native Americans knew already. This work has done so much to show how important fire and grazing are, how important the different habitats that fire and grazing create are important to birds, mammals and insects. But probably the most important part of it is the bringing together work on fire at an international level because this is something that happens on every continent except Antarctica and that's probably because we haven’t been there yet.
Get to know the fire community
Jim Ansley, Professor and Regents Fellow with Texas A&M AgriLife Research-Vernon, Texas.
We'll start with Butch Taylor’s question to you: Despite years of accumulating scientific evidence that fire is critical to the structure and function of Great Plains grasslands, society has been unable to restore fire as a fundamental grassland process across broad landscapes. What can be done to resolve this issue?
My feeling is that not much can be done. I think prescribed fire will play a minor role in grassland function but human population growth and urban, suburban and rural development (e.g., fences, structures, etc.), pressures to maintain cattle herds and graze and possibly climate change with increasing droughts will increasingly limit fire opportunities.
How did you get started working with fire and grassland systems?
I began fire research as a post-doctorate working with Dr. Pete Jacoby at Texas A&M AgriLife Vernon. We both had experience with brush control with chemical applications but began exploring the use of fire together.
What fire topics related to grasslands get you most excited as a researcher, and why?
The interaction of woody species and grasses and how fire affects those interactions.
What are the most important fire-related questions we need to answer for grasslands today?
Can fire really suppress or eliminate encroaching woody plants on large, regional scales; how frequently can prescribed fires realistically be applied on working ranches; Is there a disconnect between historical fire regimes that maintained a grassland state vs. thinking that we can mimic this using prescribed burning in an environment of more-or-less continual livestock grazing with only occasional deferment for prescribed fires.
Can you describe one or two findings/accomplishments that you are proud of from your career related to grasslands and fire?
(1) C4 midgrass restoration using summer season and alternate season fires; (2) mesquite seedling mortality response to fire intensity and summer fires.
Looking back over your career, can you offer some professional wisdom to those who are now getting their feet wet?
Make sure you understand all the legal ramifications before conducting a prescribed fire; do some practice burns on small areas to get a feel for wind effects and communication dynamics before taking on anything large; start with flat surfaces and slowly work up to understanding wind dynamics around hills and slopes; for research, replicate if possible and record as much about pre-fire conditions and conditions of the fire itself that you can include in publications; also when writing papers be careful not to compare your work to results from other fire studies that really don’t relate to the conditions of your study as support for your results – they can often be meaningless (e.g., comparing Yellowstone fire effects on soil nutrients to soils responses to a small plot grassland fire in west Texas).
GPE: Since the beginning of your career, what is the most exciting development in fire ecology that you have observed? (Robin Verble’s question to Butch.)
Butch: One big challenge, in getting more fire on the landscape, has been “how to change the paradigm for transferring ‘management’ technology”, and “how to equip and empower landowners”. The establishment of prescribed burn associations throughout the Great Plains states is meeting this challenge and also creating a fire-culture that will carry on into the future.
GPE: What fire topics related to grasslands get you most excited as a researcher, and why?
Butch: Fire grazing/browsing interaction or also referred to as patch-burning or pyric-herbivory. This concept, developed and researched by Sam Fuhlendorf and others at Oklahoma State University, is changing how we implement prescribed burning.
Another topic is the use of fire during the growing season under extreme dry conditions. Many landowners in my region cannot meet their goals and objectives with burning unless they burn under these extreme conditions.
GPE: What are the most important fire-related questions we need to answer for grasslands today?
Butch: Fire suppression and continuous heavy stocking are primary disturbances that contributed to the conversion of rangelands from grasslands to woodlands. Chemical and mechanical brush management practices replaced the historic role of fire in rangeland ecosystems. However, the ecological and economic impacts of these practices are not the same as fire. Reintroduction of fire as prescribed burning requires proper grazing management that will accumulate effective fuel loads and enhance plant succession. The integration of prescribed fire and grazing management is essential for effective ecosystem management. This will require the development of technology in the form of decision-aids which are needed to guide managers in the process of collecting information, monitoring the resource, and applying information for management decisions.
GPE: Can you describe one or two findings/accomplishments that you are proud of from your career related to grasslands and fire?
- Development and implementation of the concept of prescribed burn associations.
- Research of prescribed burning during the growing season under extreme dry conditions and implementing its use in the Edwards Plateau region of Texas.
GPE: Looking back over your career, can you offer some professional wisdom to those who are now getting their feet wet?
Butch: Have an attitude of never being satisfied with your current knowledge of fire or anything else for that matter. Never turn down an opportunity to participate on a prescribed burn (more experience is better, even for an expert). Be adaptive and think outside the box but don’t practice outside the box unless conducting research.
Learn more about Butch by watching our Masters of Fire series interview.
By Shawna Hartman; edited by Rachel Peterson
The Kansas Forest Service Mitigation Project was organized in 2005 to train Fire Science students at Hutchinson Community College (HCC) in wildland fire situations. In its first year, the event consisted of one Kansas Forest Service Employee, one HCC instructor, and a class of less than 20 students. The project has continued to grow and is now in its 11th year, with 33 students participating last year. For six years the project was operated near Manhattan, KS. Students constructed 300 yards of fire line and treated over 400 acres of public land with prescribed fire. Each year, more HCC fire science students have used their spring break to receive a taste of life as a wildland firefighter.
In 2007, the students returned to Manhattan over their December break from school to help with more hazardous fuels mitigation. However, an ice storm hit the area and the students spent their week cleaning up local trails, parks, right-of-ways, and cemeteries. Jason Hartman, Kansas Forest Service Fire Protection Specialist and coordinator for the Project, said “this was not the experience the students expected, but it’s realistic of the job of a fire fighter. You never know what you might be asked to do; it is best to be flexible.”
In 2010, the Kansas Forest Service (KFS) moved the project to their newly acquired Jackman property near Leon, KS. This move provided the fire staff with new challenges in operating the project. Being farther from the logistical support of a larger community and the KFS state office, the KFS fire staff began implementing the Incident Command System. This system provided more support to the firefighters and created a more realistic training experience.
To improve the experience of the HCC students, the KFS staff began inviting firefighters with wildland experience to fill leadership positions within the program. For three years the project was based exclusively in Butler County. In that time period, the crews were able to mitigate fuel hazards for over 700 acres by means of prescribed burns prior to the drought which slowed burning starting in 2012.
In 2013, KFS received a grant provided by the US Forest Service. This grant covered the cost of fuels reduction on public lands where life or property could be harmed in the event of a wildfire. Building on the interagency approach, KFS formed a cooperation with Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism. Since then, the project has been held at any Kansas state park in need of fuels mitigation.
To insure both the fuel reduction component and the training were being accomplished, the project required additional qualified firefighters and equipment. The number of agencies involved increased, as well as the number of training opportunities. Wildland firefighters saw the Mitigation Project as an opportunity for off-season training and a chance to broaden their fire experience. KFS fire staff implemented an application process because of the increased interest among firefighters around the country.
In 2014, KFS continued to expand the wildfire component and also worked with the Southeast and South-central Homeland Security regional Incident Management Teams to incorporate the All Hazard Incident Management experience.
This year the project will again expand on the skills of the KFS fire staff and cooperators as they meet in Hutchinson Kansas for Mitigation 2015. Hutchinson was chosen for the project because this region of Kansas has had some of the largest and most destructive wildfires in the state. The work will be done on Sand Hills State Park and Prairie Dunes Country Club. Both locations are closely bordered by homeowners who recognize the importance of reducing burnable fuel hazards in the wooded land adjacent to their property.
The Oklahoma Prescribed Fire Council supports and promotes prescribed burning across the state. The OKPFC provides information, education and creates opportunities for prescribed fire collaboration.
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Watch the producer panel from the Patch Burn Grazing “Working Group annual meeting last fall. The video is a little rough because we recorded the panel discussion on the fly, but its definitely worth a watch.
GPE: Your blog is titled “Prairie Ecologist”, but how do you describe your professional interests and expertise?
I do consider myself to be a prairie ecologist. What I enjoy most is implementing a land management or restoration technique, watching the results, and then figuring out what we can learn and incorporate into our next attempt. Over time, I’ve increased the amount of time I spend sharing what we learn with others. I try to be a generalist in terms of how I look at and manage prairies. My graduate work dealt with grassland birds, but I now think much more about plants and invertebrates than birds, and I try to keep learning about new species and ecological interactions each year.
GPE: Ultimately, what is your goal for the blog?
I view my blog as a more current and interactive version of my prairie management book (The Ecology and Management of Prairies). The blog is closing in on 2000 subscribers, and attracts many other readers that visit regularly but don’t subscribe. A large percentage of readers are prairie managers, landowners, or prairie conservationists. I hope to provide those readers with food for thought and discussions that will help them improve the quality of the grasslands they interact with. Other people just read the blog for the photos and because they have a broad interest in nature or conservation. For that audience, I try to just raise awareness about the beauty and value of prairies, in the hope that I can build a bigger constituency for prairie. The blog is one of a spectrum of outreach tools I use, including print publications, field days, presentations, and workshops.
GPE: How did you come to work in the world of grassland ecology?
I went to college planning to be a forest ranger but was introduced to prairies by a friend who convinced me that they were an underdog ecosystem that needed help. It didn’t take long to get hooked.
GPE: Where does fire fit in your ecological interests?
I see fire as an important tool for many things, but I don’t worry too much about applying it in any kind of historically-accurate kind of way. Instead, I look for ways that it can help us control woody encroachment, focus grazing impacts, alter habitat structure, and suppress/stimulate various components of the prairie plant community.
GPE: Describe your land management style? How do you go about instituting adaptive management?
I like messiness. I want every part of our prairie to experience different conditions from year to year so that no species or group becomes dominant and we maintain the highest possible diversity of species. We make management plans year by year, rather than focusing longer term. That lets us evaluate the weather and management impacts from the previous year and design the coming year’s management accordingly. We have broad goals for each prairie, but annual objectives can vary quite a bit from year to year, depending upon what we see happening and want to respond to.
GPE: What are the most important questions we need to answer for grasslands today?
I think the absolute most important issue has to do with economics and policy – we need to figure out how to prevent grasslands from being converted to other land cover types that, at least in the short term, provide more income to the landowner. Solving that issue is above my pay grade, but I try to do my part by raising awareness of the value of diverse native grasslands and helping to find ways to maintain diversity that still allow grasslands to pay their way.
Aside from that big monster, there are a lot of important questions about how degraded a prairie can become before it can recover with good management, about how to restore prairies that have passed that threshold, and about the level of species diversity (plants, invertebrates, and other) that is needed to make prairies resilient in the face of human activities and climate change. Included within that are myriad questions that we need to answer to understand how prairies actually work; the role of species (especially those belowground) in the prairie community, and how they respond to impacts from us and their environment.
GPE: What questions are you working to answer?
I’ve spent a lot of time refining techniques for restoring cropland to high-diversity grassland. Now we’re trying to figure out how effective we’ve been at actually defragmenting the landscape with that kind of restoration – do bees, ants, mice, plants, birds, and other taxa move into and through our restored areas?
Our work on the Platte River has really shifted recently toward increasing plant diversity in degraded prairies that have a long history of chronic overgrazing and broadcast herbicide use. We are working on strategies for overseeding those areas and then looking both at initial establishment and long-term viability of those new plants.
The third focus of our work has been on figuring out how to manage prairies to maintain species diversity and ecological resilience. Fire and grazing are important components of that, but we also want to find effective management strategies for managers who don’t have one or both of those tools available. It’s important for us to come up with core principles and tactics that most private and public landowners/managers can understand and implement, so while we really like using variations on patch-burn grazing, we also want to help landowners tweak the management systems that fit their individual personalities and sites instead of trying prescribe any particular management regime for them.
The Fire Learning Network (FLN) is an important partner to Fire Exchanges across the country. We help each other get the word out about fire opportunities and information. Take a look at their new factsheet that describes exactly what the FLN is up to.
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So I’ve been reading Julie Courtwright‘s book Prairie Fire: A Great Plains History. (Reading time is a premium with a baby around, so it is going slowly.) It has struck me as I reached the middle of the book how much a part of life fire was for the early settlers on the plains. Courtwright wrote about new settlers starting fires willy nilly while more seasoned residents learned to be more cautious and intentional. Many of them learned from their indigenous neighbors that fire can be important for food acquisition and production as well as useful to protect property and lives from someone else’s fire. Settlers were skilled at protection measures and fire fighting out of necessity. The dangers of fire were a reality and neighbors had to work together to keep each other safe. She wrote about school children being sent to school with a box of matches so they could light a defensive backfire should it be necessary. The most impressive trips to school for me only required my knowledge of how to work a snow suit and boots on snowy rides to school in WI. I can emphasize with the leaders of the time for restricting their constituents from burning at certain times of the year or under particular conditions, much like our present day burn bans.
As a former student of anthropology, I should make clear what I mean by culture. It is the belief system and customs of a society. What does “fire culture” mean, then? Fire was so much a part of life on the plains that using it and defending against it were part of daily activity planning, fears and hopes, annual work and activity schedules and more.
Fire had value as well as risk for settlers of the plains as well as current residents. Stephen Pyne, fire historian, often discusses how we’ve eradicated fire not only from wildlands, but also from our homes. We don’t see the furnace burning or the stove flaming much less a wildfire or prescribed fire (except on TV). We are physically removed from combustion in our homes, if there is any at all. Consequently, we have lost in our common understanding of fire the notion that its not all bad and the skills to live in a fire prone landscape successfully.
It seems that as life became more specialized, we have left it to the professionals to put out the fires. Individual responsibility for fire proofing our properties is something that we are now trying to teach home owners and communities. Just as the seasoned settlers had to teach the newcomers to the region how to be responsible with fire, long-timers in the region are still a resource of knowledge on how to burn the range, build a fire break, and more.
Fire cultures are making a come back in the region. There are 59 burn cooperatives now in the Great Plains. The Edwards Plateau Burn Association started a regional trend when they formed many years ago. These groups are neighbors helping neighbors to train each other, share resources, and get burning done safely in the region. The trend is so strong that there have even been efforts to organize on a regional level.
One person at a time we are relearning how to live with fire in the Great Plains. Is fire a part of your life? How do you use it or avoid it?
A Prescribed Fire Association is a group of landowners and other concerned citizens that form a partnership to conduct prescribed burns. Prescribed burning is the key land management tool used to restore and maintain native plant communities to their former diversity and productivity for livestock production and wildlife habitat. Native prairies, shrublands, and forests supply the majority of livestock forage and 99.9 percent of the wildlife habitat in Oklahoma. Without fire, native plant communities become dysfunctional and unproductive. Research has clearly shown that there is no substitute for fire. Oklahoma’s ecosystems are fire dependent and not burning is poor land management.
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North Central Nebraska is experiencing an invasion of eastern redcedar. This prolific, hardy native tree encroaches on prairies and takes over the understory in hardwood and pine woodlands alike – reducing available forage for livestock and wildlife, stressing other native plants, and reducing biological diversity. Historically kept in check by periodic wildfire, eastern redcedar now flourishes due to increasingly successful wildfire suppression efforts coupled with an increased seed supply from planted windbreaks. This scenario has and is being played with similar ecological and cultural responses throughout the Great Plains, though the timing is delayed as one moves from the southeast to the northwest parts of the Plains.
Ranchers became increasingly concerned as they helplessly watched their grass disappear under the trees and had to reduce herd sizes or find alternative pastures to compensate for the loss. Mechanical and chemical treatments are expensive and labor intensive. Prescribed fire has proven effective for controlling cedar, but a strong cultural bias against prescribed fire has delayed the use of fire as a range management tool. In 2008 no organized landowner mechanism was in place in northern Nebraska to effectively reintroduce fire to the landscape, and most ranchers were hesitant to use prescribed fire on their own.
Recognizing that the primary barriers to the use of prescribed fire are a lack of landowner training, a lack of specialized equipment, and not having enough people-power to conduct burns, landowner meetings were held in various parts of the eastern Niobrara Valley to see if there was interest in forming a landowner prescribed fire association. Nearly a hundred people attended three community meetings – a goodly number for such a sparsely populated area – and the Niobrara Valley Prescribed Fire Association (NVPFA) was born. A board of directors, initially consisting of five and now seven landowners representing various sections of the valley, stepped forward. The Board of Directors, elected an executive committee consisting of a president, vice-president, and secretary treasurer to lead the Association.
The NVPFA mission statement reads: We support the safe and effective use of prescribed fire by private landowners within the Niobrara River drainage area of Nebraska. The Corporation will pursue its mission by: conducting field and classroom training in the use of prescribed fire; promoting an understanding of fire as a range management tool among the citizens and leaders of the region; and making the specialized tools and equipment required for prescribed burning more accessible to private landowners of the region.
Using the earlier successful Nebraska models of landowner prescribed fire organizations such as the Loess Canyons Rangeland Alliance (LCRA) and Prescribed Burn Task Force (PBTF), the Niobrara landowners crafted by-laws and by 2009 became incorporated as a Nebraskanon-profit Corporation. They worked with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to get two Mobile Fire Cache units, each fully outfitted with two slip-on pumper units and other equipment, tools, and protective clothing for a 10-person crew.
The units are owned by NGPC and administered by the Association. In order to use the Mobile Fire Cache units landowners must be members of the association, have an approved burn plan, an approved fire boss, and a burn permit from the local volunteer fire department chief. With the equipment problem addressed, the board turned its attention to training. They applied for, and received Nebraska Environmental Trust and Sandhills Task Force grants to help with the costs of offering training and public education about the benefits of prescribed fire.
In April, 2009 they offered their first “hands-on” spring training burn – an introduction to basic fire behavior and tools, followed by a 28-acre burn under hardwoods along the banks of theNiobraraRiver. That June they offered a post-burn tour of that burn and several other spring burns that had been conducted by landowner members and contractors. Altogether that first year they conducted six burns on over 2,000 acres. They were learning that the third barrier, lack of people to help, was also being addressed. Neighbor members of the Association were beginning to help each other burn. Currently there are three informal, neighborhood landowner burn crews operating in the region. Field training sessions are occurring in both spring and fall burn seasons.
In the late winter of 2012, the NVPFA sponsored its third consecutive Mid-Winter Fire Seminar. For this year’s Mid-Winter Fire Seminar the Association was fortunate to get The Nature Conservancy’s Fire Learning Network to conduct their Seminar in conjunction with management-scale burns, including a five-landowner combined unit of 1400 acres. Association supported burn acreage during the 2012 spring burn season totals over 5,000 acres.
NVPFA landowner members pay $10 per year plus a penny an acre for access to the Mobile Fire Cache units, and supporting members pay $100 per year and are identified on our website. These funds help offset the costs of Mobile Fire Cache maintenance Prescribed Fire Training events, the Mid-Winter Fire Seminar, and website maintenance. The Association website is at www.nvpfa.org, and it has a Facebook page.