Plantations, Part 3: The Fire Bird

I grew up thinking fire was the enemy of the forest. It killed trees, injured animals, and spawned a ruined blackened landscape. I saw the horrors of a forest fire as a child when I watched the Walt Disney classic, Bambi. It wasn’t until I took over management of Chehaw Park that I learned the truth about the benefits of fire from our Natural Resources Manager, Ben Kirkland.

I assumed it was Smokey Bear and the U. S. Forest Service that had steered me wrong. “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” But in truth, the problem was much older than Smokey Bear—who came on the scene in the 1940s—and it was plantation owners who shattered a dangerous myth and helped save the Southern forests.

In the early 1920s, plantation owners around Thomasville, Georgia began to notice a serious decline in quail populations and feared that the birds might become extinct in the region. They recognized the need for a scientific study of the bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) in hopes of reversing the decline. So, in the fall of 1922 they reached out to Herbert L. Stoddard, a 33-year-old naturalist, ornithologist, and taxidermist who ran the bird department at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

To finance the quail research project, plantation owners organized. They dug into their own pockets, reached out to friends, and raised the necessary funds. By fall 1923, Stoddard was stalking the woods between Thomasville and Tallahassee trapping quail, studying what they ate, and what ate them. He had no college degree—no formal education or scientific training. But, as it turned out, that is what allowed him to discover the real problem that faced the bobwhite quail and the habitat they needed to survive.

Stoddard was from the North but had spent much of his boyhood in Central Florida. He was well familiar with the practice of Florida cattlemen and Native Americans who intentionally set fire to their land. One of his first recommendations was that that the effects of burning might be important to the Thomasville quail studies.

“The bobwhite,” Stoddard noted in his 1969 book, Memoirs of a Naturalist, “might properly be called the ‘fire bird’ so closely is it linked ecologically with fire in the coastal pinelands.”

He knew that quail thrive in the aftermath of fire. He told the plantation owners that quail need the perennial legumes and grasses that sprout after fire. Excluding fire allowed the buildup of what he called “rough” habitat. The thick cover of shrubs and small hardwood trees favored rodents—especially cotton rats—which attracted predators like foxes, birds of prey, and the huge abundant diamondback rattlesnakes he encountered when he first moved to Georgia. It was exactly the wrong habitat for bobwhite quail. His clients apparently bought his argument. Others were skeptical at best. Some were downright hostile.

Stoddard was classified by the professional forestry community as an enemy of the forests because he not only suggested Southern forests could be burned but insisted they should be burned.  He introduced the concept of “controlled burning” or “prescribed fire” to maintain natural vegetation and wildlife.

In those days U. S. Forest Service was against any use of fire for land management purpose even in in the southeast where fire was a natural process. American forestry, Stoddard noted, was rooted in European (especially German) forestry practices where there were no fire-type forests. In addition, all U. S. forestry schools in those days were located in the north where forestry classes and textbooks did not acknowledge fire-type forests. Forestry experts assumed fire would have a disastrous effect on game and wildlife management. They pointed to uncontrolled wildfires in the western mountains and in the northern forests. At the American Forestry Association meeting in February 1929, Stoddard presented the chapter on fire from his soon-to-be-published book The Bobwhite Quail: Its Habits, Preservation, and Increase to the assembly. He was greeted, he recalled, with “great hostility”.

The Forest Service eventually came around and today burning the Southern pine forests is accepted practice. The Georgia Forestry Commission and the Georgia Prescribed Fire Council say prescribed fire “is a safe way to apply a natural process, ensure ecosystem health and reduce wildfire risks”. They note that habitats across the state have evolved with fire and that the strategic application of fire mimics this natural cycle. Even Smokey Bear has updated his message to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires” in an attempt to clarify that he is promoting the prevention of unplanned outdoor fires, not prescribed burns.

At most modern plantations, prescribed fire is the primary land management tool for managing thousands of acres of forest and wildlife resources. At Robert W. Woodruff’s Ichauway Plantation, for example, I saw fire used on a massive scale during my first visit there in the fall of 2004. According to the website of the Jones Center at Ichauway, healthy longleaf pine forests depend on frequent fire. In the absence of fire, longleaf pine forests shift to hardwood dominated forests over time. The unique plants and animals found in longleaf pine forests have adapted to frequent fire and depend on it to maintain their preferred habitat structure.

The pine forests of the Southeastern United States are thought to have once covered fifty percent of the land across thousands of miles of nine states from Virginia to Texas. The late biologist E. O. Wilson once identified twelve of the best places on earth to see a living natural environment. He placed our longleaf pine savanna in the same category as the Amazon rainforest and the Serengeti grasslands.

A hundred years ago, plantation owners brought in a maverick, Yankee forester who convinced them to go against all of the “experts” and burn their property. They bought his radical concept, and they are still burning today. Without the stewardship of these wealthy landlords and the radical ideas of Herbert Stoddard, Southwest Georgia probably wouldn’t have thousands of acres of one of the world’s most important natural ecosystems—the southern pine forest.

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