Burning forest was controversial at first
By James Barnett
The history of fire in Southern forests is a long and vexing one.
Setting fire to the woods has been a common practice in the South. Some have described it as natural as the honking of migrating geese or the appearance of crimson foliage on sweet gums.
American Indians had long used fire to maintain open forests to facilitate hunting and also used fire to drive deer through openings so that they were more easily harvested. Settlers used fire to clear land and to “green up” the grass in the spring to provide new growth for their grazing animals.
However, early foresters found the need to control fires if reforestation efforts were to be successful. One of the first specific forest practices to be undertaken in the South had to do with fire prevention. The first large-scale attempts to control fire were on the Forest Service’s national forests.
The American Forestry Association awakened much interest in early fire prevention in 1929 by sending a caravan of motor vans into the South to begin a three-year crusade for fire prevention. Equipped with moving pictures and literature, the vans roved the hinterlands in several states where fire problems were severe. Known as the “Dixie Crusaders,” the members of the fire prevention caravans traveled 300,000 miles throughout the Deep South, holding rallies, distributing pamphlets, and showing self-produced movies to some 3 million people.
The caravans would visit piney woods communities too small to have a post office. Often there were no buildings adequate to maintain the crowds and the meetings would be held outdoors with the pictures projected on the side of a building. One meeting was described as: “many of the people who came never before had seen a motion picture — several had never heard of such a thing — so there was considerable interest and excitement.” A local storekeeper observed, “there ain’t been this many people here since the day George Miller got shot.”
Dr. John F. Shea, a psychologist, was hired by the Forest Service to study why locals set fires. He reported at the time that many of the people craved excitement in “an environment otherwise barren of emotional outlets.” Maybe this was why the Dixie Crusaders were successful. Their effort created a lot of interest because it was so unique for the time. But, the efforts did not drastically change the Southerner’s love for burning the forest. An example on the Kisatchie National Forest is the Vernon Ranger District — known as “Burnin’ Vernon.” The district has been aggressively burned, but now has magnificent stands of longleaf pine. The timing of burning is critical in different stages of stand development.
It was this barren, emotional environment that early foresters faced as they came to the South to begin to regenerate the millions of acres of cut-over forests. The annual wildfires were a detriment to reforestation efforts and fire prevention became a primary objective of forest management. Total exclusion of fire became the goal of Forest Service managers on the national forests which were being created throughout the South during the early 1900s.
It is not surprising that a proposed role for fire in forest management was strongly opposed. The best example of this conflict resulted from the effort of Professor H.H. Chapman of Yale University. Chapman began in 1917 bringing the Yale School of Forestry seniors to a three-month spring camp established for them at the Urania Lumber Co. by its president, Henry E. Hardtner. This arrangement between Chapman and Hardtner continued until 1942.
Chapman and his students pioneered such novel concepts as determining growth possibilities, evaluating the role of fire in establishment of longleaf pine, and recommending periodic controlled burns as a means of suppressing hardwood competition. His work showed that most winter fires do not kill longleaf pine seedlings; rather, they help establish stands, suppress pine and hardwood competitors, and reduce hazardous fuel accumulations. He recommended the use of fire in longleaf pine stands every three years. Although scientifically sound, his recommendations were strongly opposed by both Forest Service and state forest managers.
Chapman, however, was equal to the challenge. Described variably as dynamic, dogmatic, charismatic, impressive and intimidating by students and colleagues, his strong personality had a lasting impact on his students and adversaries.
Louisiana State Forester V.H. Sonderegger objected to the use of fire in forests for any reason and argued heatedly with Chapman. Sonderegger had been diligently endeavoring to prevent and suppress wildfires throughout the state. Meanwhile, Chapman was demonstrating the need for fire to prepare seedbeds for regeneration of southern pines and to reduce the brush in the understory of those forests. The arrival of the professor with his students from the North at Yale’s Urania camp each spring called for more patience than Sonderegger could muster. The two argued publicly in the local press and in the Journal of Forestry. In the end, Chapman won.
It was not beyond Chapman to add a little insult to injury in his sparring with Sonderegger. In the late 1910s, Sonderegger had noted that unusually distorted and misshapen pines found in the forest were likely natural hybrids between longleaf and loblolly pines. They were locally called the “bastard” pines and were noted to have the worse characteristics of both parents. In 1922, Chapman published a scientific description of the pine in the Journal of Forestry and as the author of the description was allowed to provide a name for the hybrid which he did, dubbing it Sonderegger pine. Colleagues questioned whether the name was because Sonderegger originally suggested it as a possible hybrid or was the namesake for something else?
The biggest hindrance to the establishment of southern pine reproduction was said to be “not wildfire,” but “no fire.” Or fire at the wrong time. Chapman and Forest Service scientists began to agree that there was a valid role for fire in management of southern pine forests. Philip C. Wakeley, who was the Southern Forest Experiment Station scientist charged with developing reforestation technology for the southern pines, described the transition of Forest Service managers from opposing all fire to adopting guidelines for its appropriate use.
In 1928, Wakeley and others of the Research Station began a large study to evaluate Chapman’s contentions. They found that Chapman’s positions were correct with one exception. His supposition that burning longleaf pine seedlings protected them from brown-spot needle disease was not accurate.
Foresters have now developed methodologies to use prescribed fire to improve game habitat, to reduce the risk of wildfire and to release valuable trees from plants competing for soil moisture, light, and nutrients, as well an array of techniques needed for reforestation.
Some believe the “Smokey Bear” message continues to cause some to object to the use of prescribed fire in managed forests. In fact, prior to 2001, Smokey Bear’s message was
“Remember Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires. To help draw a distinction between “good” fire and “bad” fire, Smokey’s new message is “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires,” thus implying that not all fire in the forest is bad. The southern pines are fire-dependent species — fire is required to maintain these ecosystems. One hundred years later, Chapman’s message is still appropriate — there is a significant role for the use of fire in the management of these forests.
The challenge now is not in understanding the value of the use of fire in our forests, but in how do we apply it now when homes are being built adjacent to and throughout our forest lands. How do we deal with smoke and risk management issues?
These are now some of the challenges facing forest managers in maintaining the use of fire.
(Jim Barnett, is emeritus scientist for the U.S. Forest Service.)