22 Jun 2009, 11:54am
Ecology Management Philosophy
by admin

Patch Burning

Stephen Pyne. 2009. Patch Burning. The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.


Dr. Stephen J. Pyne is Regents Professor at Arizona State University. He is author of Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada (2007), Univ. British Columbia Press, Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire (1982), Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia (1991), World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth (1995), Vestal Fire: An Environmental History, Told Through Fire, of Europe and Europe’s Encounter with the World (1997), The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica (1986), and numerous other histories, memoirs, essays, and texts about fire.

This essay is one of three related essays about fire in the Midwest. The others are:

Missouri Compromise [here], and

People of the Prairie, People of the Fire [here]


Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:

It is a biotic border that spans a continent, and it displays a continental sized roughness. In rude terms it traces the coarse shoreline between a sea of grass to the west and a land of mixed forests to the east, an edge sculpted into the ecological equivalent of bays, narrows, skerries, and estuaries, as climatic tides, the tectonic lurching of glaciers, and the sprawl of colonizing species have tugged and twisted, and here and there allowed grass or woods to mostly prevail. That textured shoreline holds a jumbled geography of incombustible wetlands and free-burning bottomlands, fire-flushed Barrens and fire-hardened forests, prairie peninsulas and prairie patches, oak mottes and woody copses, and landscapes latent with bits of them all, some extending over hundreds of miles.

It is a fractal frontier, patchy at every scale, with small patches within larger. And it is a frontier of fire, with each part checked or boosted by the ferocity and abundance of burning.

Cross Timbers

Even so, the Cross Timbers stand out. They proclaim a bold, woody headland, as distinctive as the White Cliffs of Dover, between the grassy sea that swells to the west and the humid forest that crowds the east. It is here that storm surges of fire, roaring over the long fetch of the Great Plains, whipped by the westerlies into whitecaps of flame, crash against the less combustible woods. The belt is long, stretching from the Edwards Plateau of Texas to the Flint Hills of Kansas; irregular and sinuous, roughly cruciform, historically varying from five to 30 miles wide, but at places spanning most of Oklahoma; and persistent, its 4.8 million hectares defying settlement’s attempts to log, plow, graze, or burn it into oblivion. Instead, it continues in Oklahoma to thicken with stubborn oaks – blackjack, shin, live, and post.

Prairie patch

For early explorers the association of fire and prairies was a given. Where you had one, you had the other, and precocious tourists like Irving expected to experience a sea of flame as much as swarms of bison. In fact, Irving’s French-Canadian guide exclaimed that, if a fire did not conveniently present itself, he would set one. …

Still, the debate flourished between those who sought an explanation in soils and climate, and those who thought the answer lay in fauna and fire. Aldo Leopold commented on the “immemorial warfare” between the oaks and grasses in the Wisconsin savanna. And in his magisterial global survey Carl Sauer noted that temperate grasslands everywhere were sites of level and unbroken terrain, swept by windy westerlies and fire; he thought the burning anthropogenic. Yet it still seems implausible to some observers that aboriginal humanity, outfitted with spears and torches, could have prompted such immense effects.

One reply is to note the difference between creating such landscapes and maintaining them. Surely, fire –- that most interactive of biotechnologies –- worked in close coupling with other factors; but everywhere it has been removed from the grasslands east of the 100th meridian, the scene has quickly overgrown with woody plants, and the further east, the more humid the climate, the more broken the land became with watercourses, the less effective lightning could be as a kindler and the more stubborn the resistances to fire spread. …

… [Thomas] Jefferson’s speculation had another side, that the fires were set for hunting, which bonds fire to a more biological etiology. There was little tall about prairie that was grazed, and those sites were most grazed which grew where they had most recently burned, since they were more accessible and far richer in protein. The fast combustion of flame had to compete with the slow combustion of metabolizing bison, elk, pronghorn, prairie dogs, and grasshoppers. …

Fire explanations favor triangles, however. And this third factor Jefferson also identified: people. They completed the cycle by setting the fires. It had to be so. Especially as the proneness of landscapes to propagate fires splintered to the eastward, as land roughened, watercourses multiplied, and humidity thickened, only people could have set enough fires. Remove any part of this prairie fire triangle and the fire would go out.

The upshot is that those prairie patches were not only pyric landscapes: they were cultural landscapes. They remain so today. …

The prairie patch within Osage County claims the southernmost reach of the Flint Hills, and it has survived more or less intact precisely because it is both grazed and burned. The linkage is deliberate: it is burned to improve grazing, and because it is grazed it gets burned. Because it gets burned as part of an annual routine, the greater prairie patch displays a fire culture that has long disappeared from America’s vernacular landscapes. That tradition has kept fires that have elsewhere vanished.

These are working landscapes. Ranchers seek to maximize their economic return and use fire because it assists a pattern of raising cattle. The norm is to burn early in the spring to help kindle a burst of warm-season grasses. They burn it all –- all of it, all at once, usually completing the task by mid-April. Then they double-stock with cattle, largely imported, and most of that herd purchased with borrowed money. The fire-catalyzed prairies rapidly transform black char into green fodder. The freshening grasslands become an open landscape feedlot. By mid-July the fattened cattle are shipped to traditional corn-stocked lots before dispatch to slaughterhouses. Relieved of intensive cropping, the grasses spring back and grow sufficiently to support another round of burning the following year. …

Fire has stayed on the land. A fire culture has endured. …

… [M]odern science has tended to parallel the logic of modern production, and often views the economy of nature as it does the economics of commodities. Range science has isolated and studied precisely those critical components that have boosted the conversion of prairie grass into saleable meat. It scrutinizes each part of the prairie separately – that’s what putatively grants it status as positive knowledge. It knows something of what grazing does; it knows something of how fire behaves; but until recently it has not sought to put grazing and fire together organically, which has left its Enlightenment-derived epistemology ignorant of what hominids on grasslands have known since the days of Australopithecus. The two processes don’t act separately: they act together. …

Overwhelmingly, as hunters have known for eons, grazers go to the fresh fodder springing up after burns. Greening tallgrass gets cropped as soon as it surfaces, leaving the appearance of a mown lawn. So rich in protein is the grass that the older stems, yellow and waving in the wind nearby, are ignored. Nor must managers put out supplementary feeds to help the stock survive winter. The medley of burned patches keeps fresh fodder on the land year-round; and bison gorge on the low forbs -– traditionally dismissed as weeds — that flourish amid the mix of grasses. …

This is how the basics had evolved over millions of years. What aboriginal Americans did was to expand vastly the range of this dynamic and then to hold it against climatic pressures that sought to contract it. Their burning defined the ecoregion. What ranchers then did was what farmers have done with wheat and foresters with loblolly pine: they simplified, homogenized, and maximized for a single purpose. What the newcomers at places like Tallgrass Prairie Preserve are trying to do is to reverse, or more properly modernize, that process so that the land can recover and retain its historic character and enriched biodiversity. In time, it is possible that ranchers may emulate the researchers and introduce patch burning into their commercial landscapes. Experiments suggest that, amid those patches, ecology and economics may find a common cause. …

The reasons for eliding humans out of the prehistoric prairie is understandable within a national creation story that speaks of a wilderness America colonized by a civilized Europe; it is myth, and myth sings its own truth. It is less understandable for a science of ecology that purports to explain a natural world for which myth is not a prime mover. Yet until recently that is exactly what fire ecology has done: it has systematically stripped fire-powered biotas of their keystone species, the sole creature who has held a species monopoly over fire. Nature didn’t burn patches. People did. …

What is missing is people. People set the overwhelming majority of fires in the past, and they set them today. The further east the prairie patch extends, the more it depends on humans to do the kindling. And that is no less true historically: the further back, the more prominent the role of human firebrands. Prairie managers have come to grips with this fact, pragmatically, if not philosophically. Fire science has not. …

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