The 21st Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference was held in Tallahassee, Florida, U.S.A. on 14-16 April 1998. Titled: “Fire and Forest Ecology: Innovative Silviculture and Vegetation Management”, this conference brought together 240 researchers and managers who used fire to manipulate vegetation to achieve their organizations’ goals. Land managers from groups with very different objectives, whether industrial commodity production or preservation-oriented, often use fire for remarkably similar reasons. The conference goal was to provide a forum to discuss fire ecology, management and effects, both within and outside the context of silvicultural treatments.
The keynote speaker, Dr. Johann-Georg Goldammer, Fire Ecology and Biomass Research Group, Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, set the stage for the conference by speaking to “Silviculture and Vegetation Management By Fire: Global Transitions.” His worldview of fire accurately framed the issues of fire’s role in natural ecosystem development and the importance of fire as a management tool for progressive natural resource professionals. In the Fire and Forest Ecology session of the conference, moderator Jim Vose, of the Coweeta Lab, U. S. Forest Service, brought us up to date the ecosystem perspectives of using prescribed fire to achieve the manager’s objectives. The conference was then treated to a primer on the physiological effects of fire, the long-term effects of prescribed biennial fires on longleaf pine growth, the impact tree harvesting followed by a site preparation burn had upon plant succession and restoration of desired plant communities in the Southern Appalachians (U.S.A.) and a new project where fire behaviour and movement were controlled across artificial corridors of various widths. The second segment of this session had talks on long-term (30 years!) impacts of fire in Montana, old-growth oaks in a fire-dominated system in Florida, the history of disturbance, including fire, in central Alaska, and fuel loads vs. overstory conditions in New Mexico.
Mike Weber, of Forestry Canada, Edmonton, Alberta, introduced the Fire and Soils session by relating how fire impacted ecosystem structure and function in the boreal forests. This talk was followed by others on comparing fire to chemical and mechanical site preparation and the impacts of fire on hardwood forest soils.
In the session titled: “Fire and Ecological Restoration”, Wally Covington, of Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona, U.S.A. framed the issue of prescribed fire as a specific ecological restoration tool. The speakers who followed documented the use of fire as an ecological restoration tool on federal lands, and dealt with specific management problems, such as snag management or regions, such as Florida sand-scrub or Ohio oak savannas. The “Fire and Herbicides” session was moderated by Shep Zedaker, professor of silviculture at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia, U.S.A. Shep examined the issues, both biological and legal (an increasingly onerous impediment to prescribed burning in the U.S.A.), and the management and research implications. The subsequent papers detailed the use of fire and herbicides to achieve management goals, whether to restore a native wiregrass to fire-excluded sites in the southeastern U.S.A. or to reduce an exotic grass on an island off California, U.S.A., air-quality implications of prescribed fire and the resultant use of herbicides, or enhance game management by periodic herbicides and annual burns.
The “Fire and Wildlife” session, moderated by Dick Williams, CSIRO, Darwin, Australia, started with Dick’s talk on fire regimes and biodiversity management in northern Australia landscapes. The following talks dealt with fire’s impacts on cavity nesters in Florida and Arizona, U.S.A., and ground dwelling birds and mammals in South Carolina and Arizona, U.S.A. Unlike many scientific conferences, this one explicitly included talks by management professionals outlining their experiences with fire used to achieve their organization’s goals. Terry Hingtgen, of the Florida (U.S.A.) Park Service spoke of his efforts to improve wildlife habitat in southern Florida by using fire. Steve Miller, of the St. John’s River Water Management District, talked about his organization’s efforts to improve the forestland with a fell-and-burn technique. Dave Gerhardt, Westvaco Corporation, South Carolina (U.S.A.) spoke of the constraints and implications that a large industrial landowner faces when using fire as a management tool.
Fire and Policy Issues was introduced by Frank Cole, of the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, Newton, Georgia, U.S.A. with his outline of policy issues facing prescribed burning. The conference attendees then learned of the extent of the use of prescribed fire in the southeastern U.S.A. and the costs of burning by federal U.S. agencies.
For the banquet speech, Bob Izlar of the University of Georgia, U.S.A. spoke of fire and the impacts on the small landowner in Georgia. He addressed the urbanization of forested land near Atlanta, the capital of Georgia, and the many current and pending regulations which could deleteriously impact the use of prescribed fire as a management tool. The final session, Fire and Silviculture, was also the longest, reflecting the purpose of the conference and the amount of work done in the field. While most of the talks focused on the southeastern U.S.A., there were some interesting talks about research in the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes regions of the U.S.A. The moderator, Dave Van Lear, Clemson University, U.S.A., spoke of the latest advances in fire as a silvicultural tool. The audience then heard of specific research on shelterwood-burn techniques in the mountains and foothills of the southern Appalachians, the use of fire in canopy gaps and the impact on deer browse in West Virginia (U.S.A.), the restoration of an endangered forest canopy species, Pinus pungens, using fire, restoring fire to pine systems in the north-central U.S.A. and using fire to maintain old-growth structure in forests in eastern Oregon, U.S.A.
The focus of the conference was on using fire as an active management tool. The subsequent wildfire season in Florida shows what can happen when the use of fire as this tool is restricted, by liability, urbanization or ignorance. As the 1998 fire season in Florida showed, it is not a matter of “if” the forests will burn, but “when.”
Federal and state statutes and policy limit the weather conditions under which prescribed burns can be conducted in heavily urbanized regions such as Florida, to minimize the impacts of smoke on visibility and human health. There is a potential danger that a restriction of the burning window would reduce prescribed burning in critical areas. This would create fuel loads, especially in the commercial plantations, that will inevitably result in large conflagrations, with the resulting impact on the economics of suppression, damage to residential and commercial buildings and, perhaps, the loss of life.
From: W. Keith Moser Ecological Forestry Scientist, Address: Tall Timbers Research,Inc. Route 1, Box 678 USA – Tallahassee, Florida 32312-9712