Blane Heumann is The Nature Conservancy’s director of fire management. He’s worked for the Conservancy for 20 years, and he has been pursuing excellence in burning for conservation for the past 27 years.
On April 26, 1962, at the Helen Allison Savanna Preserve north of Minneapolis, Dr. Don Lawrence set out to do what never had been done before in The Nature Conservancy: he was going to burn nature to save it.
After many months of planning and collaboration with other conservationists, Dr. Lawrence led a team that took a match to the preserve, sending flames sweeping across 20 acres of grasses and oak woodlands in a “controlled burn.” It was hoped that restoring fire to the preserve would help the prairie grasses and wildflowers to recover, and drive back invading hardwood brush that was degrading conditions for birds and other wildlife.
A life-long conservationist and a professor of botany and ecology, Dr. Lawrence advised the Conservancy on scientific matters and helped raise funds to protect special places in Minnesota, including Helen Allison Savanna. Dr. Lawrence was part of a small network of biologists in the Midwest who were among the first to notice that our country’s decades-old practice of putting out nearly all fires was leading to dramatic changes on many of our lands. Certain plant species were struggling to survive, or even disappearing, and Dr. Lawrence surmised that burning might just turn things around.
A radical concept? Not really.
For millions of years fire had shaped America’s forests and grasslands, to the point where many of our landscapes came to depend on fire almost as much as they depended on water.
Dr. Lawrence knew his natural history and sought to bring this natural process back to the preserve. In doing so he pioneered a cost effective land restoration tool that is safely and methodically applied across Conservancy lands today. Just last year we applied controlled burns to 130,000 acres of conservation lands.
What’s more, the use of fire as a conservation tool is needed today more than ever; the USDA Forest Service believes that nearly 82 million acres of National Forest System lands are in need of restoration. Adding in other federal, state, private and tribal lands, the Conservancy further estimates the restoration backlog is around 120 million acres (an area the size of California and West Virginia combined).
Keeping our forests and prairies healthy is essential. Forests provide half our nation’s water supply, support more than million jobs in the wood products industry and generate $14.5 billion annually in recreation income for surrounding communities. Our prairies are among the most endangered habitats in the U.S. and around the world, and support the majority of U.S. beef production.
Since 1988 the Conservancy has burned more than 1.5 million acres in more than 1,000 different places in an effort to spur the growth of native plants and wildlife, and reduce the spread of foreign invasive species. Some of our most notable results include:
- Increasing the number of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers at longleaf pine forests in the Southeast;
- Restoring hundreds of highly diverse prairie grasslands throughout the Great Plains, from small nature reserves within the urban landscapes of Chicago to vast rolling ranch landscapes of Oklahoma and Kansas; and
- Enhancing and restoring coastal habitats in Florida and Texas, improving critical habitat for the endangered Florida Scrub Jay and in Texas the Attwater’s prairie chicken.
Controlled burns also offer very real safety benefits for people. Today many of our forests in the West, for example, are choked with brush and an overabundance of small trees. These unhealthy conditions fuel unnaturally severe fires that threaten forests and people alike. By cutting and removing woody fire fuel and with controlled burning, we can reduce the impacts of dangerous “mega-fires.” (Unfortunately these extremely dangerous and damaging fires have become more common in the last decade).
Dr. Lawrence designed that first controlled burn as an experiment to test the effects of different frequencies of fire on the plants and wildlife. Our staff has maintained this tradition of learning from our fire work, and practitioners regularly exchange knowledge within the Conservancy, with our peers in local, state and federal agencies, and with private landowners. Staff from The Nature Conservancy also helps train agency and other partners in how to achieve good ecological outcomes using fire, which really is the Conservancy’s specialty.
Over the past 10 years much of this learning and training has been accomplished with help from the Fire Learning Network, a cooperative program of the Forest Service, Department of the Interior agencies — Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service — and The Nature Conservancy. The partnership has a 10-year proven track record of helping to restore our nation’s forests and grasslands and to make communities safer from fire.
But a visit to the Helen Allison Savanna today is all one needs to be convinced of the effectiveness of applying controlled burns to restore forests and grasslands. Fifty years after Dr. Lawrence’s first burn, the preserve is a pleasant rolling landscape of high grasses mixed with oak trees, eerily like the mixed savanna-woodlands where humans first evolved in Africa. This may not be a coincidence — because it is believed early humans likely used fire to kick-start the growth of new grasses to attract prey species.
So, while Dr. Lawrence was not the first person to use fire to restore a natural landscape, he certainly was a pioneer within the Conservancy.
[Image 1: 50 Years of controlled burning at the Conservancy. Image source: TNC. Image 2: The Conservancy’s first controlled burn, taken April 26, 1962, at Helen Allison Savanna Preserve by Dr. Don Lawrence. Pictured are Dr. Frank D. Irving (left), a colleague of Dr. Lawrence’s on faculty at the University of Minnesota and an early proponent of the use of fire to restore ecosystems, and Alvar Peterson (right), resident manager of the adjacent Cedar Creek Reserve. Image source: 1962 Dr. Donald Lawrence.)