Burning for Good?

Land Between the Lakes – It's the day after a rain and the sky is clear over this stretch of grassland and woods next to the Trace in Land Between the Lakes. These are the weather conditions LBL Fire Manager Jim McCoy looks for when setting up a prescribed burn. LBL has a system of controlled burning in place throughout the year to prevent fire and encourage certain species to grow. A team of nearly twenty wildland firefighters equipped with pickaxes, flametorches, and hard-hats disperses over the area. A burn area is always mapped before hand, and workers set up along streambeds and dirt barriers to keep the fire from getting out of control. McCoy says one outcome of repeated burns is destruction of weak trees like maples. This encourages stronger hardwoods like oak and hickory to grow.

So that what you end up with is a very healthy forest where if a tornado or an ice storm or a wind event or even a beetle outbreak or even a gypsy moth comes through, kills the forest canopy, the advanced reproduction layer is oak hickory.

Not everyone agrees with the Forest Service's stance on prescribed burns. One regional environmental group, Heartwood, wants the prescribed burns to stop altogether. They say effects from burning actually harm the ecosystem rather than help it. Craig Rhodes is a longtime member of Heartwood and a former public school teacher. He says his observations of one area over nearly two decades don't add up to the Forest Service's tree growth predictions.

The larger oak trees that are left behind have now died as a result of these fires. So they're not there anymore. The smaller oak trees that they're claiming they want to regenerate and replace what is there have been burned out and turned to snag.

Rhodes is also concerned about fires destroying habitats for local species, especially in the spring.

This is the migratory season. There's a lot of migratory songbirds that are moving into this area to breed. So there's all of this wildlife not counting lizards, reptiles, etc. that are going to be disturbed if not killed as a result of this fire that they're doing and I don't think that's even being taken into account.

McCoy agrees some animals do die during a prescribed burn, but not all of them.

They are adapted to deal with that. Most of them have escape strategies. Our reptiles tend to evacuate. Our reptiles will find hiding places in the middle of the unit and when it's over they pop back out.

Also, McCoy says many species, like birds, are able to live in the mixed habitat which results from a burn.

The Neville Creek fire quickly consumes the first section of dry grass, leaving behind a patchy black landscape. The goal of this burn is to kill some of the saplings among the grasslands and preserve a prairie landscape. McCoy says the area will start to regenerate in about two weeks. Forest officials also prescribe burns to reduce wildfire hazards. McCoy says the Southeast Region that includes LBL has more instance of wildfire than any other part of the country. LBL averages about six a year. He admits fires out west are harder to contain, but says that's because the western states don't do as many controlled burns.

Just the United States Forest Service in our southern region, which is what we're in now, prescribe burns more than the rest of the country put together.

Heartwood Environmental group representatives say widespread burning may affect more than just the flora and fauna. Craig Rhodes says the LBL region is rich with history, much of which has not been charted and may be damaged during a burn.

There's a lot of cemeteries there that people don't even know are there anymore because tombstones have been stolen, damaged, gone. If you go in and try to do an archeological survey prior to a burn, a lot of these areas you're gonna miss.

Rhodes says the Forest Service's continued burning is dangerous because ecosystems are too complicated to completely understand.

To be so arrogant as to believe that you have all the answers, enough so that you're willing to go to such drastic measures as to burn off thousands of acres of land in an area that has not evolved that way to begin with.

McCoy argues human intervention, including burning, has been a part of LBL's ecosystem for a long time. He says the history goes all the way back to when the Native Americans burned large parts of the land to make more prairie land for the bison and elk they relied upon. [NAT SOUND BEGINS] The land at Neville Creek after a few fire treatments is beginning to look more like a prairie. Just before the burn, McCoy sees something promising in the middle of the field. It's a compass plant.

It's a prairie obligate that's very sensitive to development. You till it, graze it, compass plant disappears. I been looking for this thing out here for years. It means this ecosystem is well on its way.

As long as Forest Service officials continue to get the results they are looking for through controlled fires, it's likely they will continue using the method in their conservation efforts. McCoy acknowledges biologists, naturalists, and lay people constantly discover new information about the land. He says methods and techniques will continue to adapt as the ecosystem evolves.