Into the Field: Volunteer Opportunities in Environmental Sciences

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It was a Tuesday night when I got the message from the burn boss, the burn would take place on that Thursday. Two days is not a lot of notice but that is the nature of a prescribed burn. Participants not only need to be trained, they need to be ready. There are only short-recommended windows in the spring and fall when conditions are optimal and, when dealing with a force of nature like fire, you want things to be optimal.

Every year, with the exception of spring 2020, the Aldo Leopold Nature Center (ALNC) in Monona, Wisconsin conducts prescribed burns on its prairies and the adjacent areas. Jon Traver, this year’s burn boss, gave a pretty concise rationale for the reasons that these burns are conducted. “Prescribed burns, or controlled burns, are important land management measures that involve setting small, planned fires. This is done to control invasive species, promote new growth of native species and reduce the risk of wildfires.”

Traver’s words are straight to the point, much as his management style. This is a quality you want in a burn boss. There is much more to the story behind why we burn though, and how it is an obligation of our stewardship of the land.

If there is something akin to sacred for people who study ecology and view Aldo Leopold’s ideas regarding a land ethic as the way humans should be, stewards of the biotic systems we inhabit, then participating in a prescribed burn at an education center that bears his name would likely qualify as that. Founded in 1994, the Also Leopoldo Nature Center mission statement reads as such, “engage and educate current and future generations, empowering them to respect, protect, and enjoy the natural world,” (https://aldoleopoldnaturecenter.org/). The relationship ALNC has with the grounds it inhabits is integral to the success of that mission. With its roughly 50 acres of land, ranging from prairies, oak savanna, woodlands and wetlands, a person can easily see why the stewardship of a place where Leopold’s land ethic is taught becomes one and the same as the teaching itself.

The role prescribed of burns play in the stewardship piece of Leopold’s land ethic is hard to understate. Leopold began his career as a forester in an era when forests and public lands were protected from fire, as stands of timber were viewed as a valuable resource. However, The Great Fire of 1910, also known as the “Big Blowup”, began to change things. Occurring during Leopold’s second year as a forester, the cumulative grassland and forest fires in the U.S. burned over three million acres of land and sent ash aloft all the way to Greenland (https://foresthistory.org/).

In essence the story goes like this: the U.S. Forest Service had created a policy of suppression of fire, which in turn short circuited the biotic processes of the land, then resulting in more fuel for the fires across the landscape, primary plant growth ceased, and the landscape changed. Ultimately this resulted in a lot of really big fires. The U.S. Forest Service learned that nature ultimately wins when absolute suppression is the policy, and the cost for humans and the landscape will always go up in the process. There is a quote from Leopold on page 262 of “A Sand County Almanac” that seems to suit the situation well; “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to do otherwise.” Absolute fire suppression on a macro scale turned out to be, otherwise.

Fire is a natural process, and through Leopold’s lens it becomes clear that in order to preserve a biotic community there has to be a facilitation of those natural processes, even the process of fire. Although never quite our best friend, fire can definitely be our worst enemy. Humans have a tortured history with fire; It cooks our food, it brings us heat in colder climes, in addition to keeping predators away. Fun fact, there is even a school of thought…



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