Get to know the fire community-Al Steuter

Al Steuter at home on the prairie

Al Steuter at home on the prairie

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.