22 Jun 2009, 12:08pm
Ecology Management Philosophy
by admin

People of the Prairie, People of the Fire

Stephen Pyne. 2009. People of the Prairie, People of the Fire. 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

Patch Burning [here]


Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:

Twice over the past 20,000 years the Illinois landscape has been destroyed and rebuilt. In the first age the agent of change was ice, mounded into sheets and leveraged outward through a suite of periglacial processes from katabatic winds to ice-dam-breaching torrents. The ice obliterated everything, leaving as its legacy a geomorphic matrix of dunes, swales, moraines, loess, great lakes and landscape-dissecting streams.

For the second, the agent was iron, forged into plows and then into rails. Coal replaced climate as a motive force, and people pushed aside the planetary rhythms of Milankovitch cycles and cosmogenic carbon cycles as a prime mover. They left behind a surveyed landscape of squared townships.

The first event worked through a geologic matrix; the second, a biological one; and they were equally thorough. All the state went under ice at least once; the last outpouring, the Wisconsin glaciation, pushed south from Lake Michigan and covered perhaps a third. The frontier of agricultural conversion put nearly all of the state to the plow, or where rocky moraines prevented it, to the hoofs of livestock. When it ended, only one-tenth of one percent of the precontact landscape remained more or less intact. Less than one acre out of a thousand held its founding character, and that acre was itself minced into a thousand, scattered pieces.

In both ice age and iron age, however, life revived after the extinction with fire as an informing presence – fire in the hands of people. The biological recolonization of the landscape after the ice had fire in its mix and expressed itself as oak savannas, tallgrass prairies, and grassy wetlands, stirred by routine burning. Fire was a universal catalyst; in particular, prairie and fire became ecological symbionts. The reconstruction of the second landscape has relied on industrial combustion, fueled by the fossil fallow of biomass.

But those intent on sparing, or actively restoring, the former landscape must appeal to open burning. A fire sublimated through a tractor does not yield the same effects as one let loose to free-burn through big bluestem. The regeneration of such settings is troubling –- unstable and scattered, an inchoate genesis still in the making, its reliance on fire both essential and challenged.

The indigenes at the time of European contact, the Potawatomi, were known variously as the people of the place of the fire, or the keepers of the fire, because they maintained the great council fire around which the regional confederation of tribes gathered. But that fire did not stay within the council circle: it spread throughout the landscape, a constant among the diversity of grasses, trees, shrubs, ungulates, small mammals, birds, and insects that congregated around the informing prairie. In time the Potawatomi became known equally as the people of the prairie since the one meant the other. Remove fire, and the prairie disappeared. Remove prairie, and free-ranging fire lost its habitat. Remove the keepers of the fire and both prairie and fire vanish into overgrown scrub, weedy lots, or feral flame.

Restoration is a slippery concept. In some places it means mostly finding ways to preserve and enhance relicts that have survived the battering. In other places it means an outright regeneration, or a reconversion of farmland to prairie. But at its core it involves sparing the pieces and saving the processes that connect them. In Illinois, once the prairie state, now a factory farm, prescribed burning is what connects those pieces, and prescribed burners are the agents that join them. …


… Today that miscellany of missed places constitutes an atoll of natural areas, some 32,000 acres in all, allocated among 33 designated sites, hopefully labeled the Greater Kankakee Sands Ecosystem. The archipelago includes Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area, Des Plaines Conservation Area, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Wilmington Shrub Prairie Nature Preserve, Laughton Preserve, Mazonia-Braidwood State Fish and Wildlife Area, Iroquois Woods Nature Preserve, Mskoda Land and Water Reserve, Sweet Fern Savanna Land and Water Reserve, Kankakee Sands Restoration Project, Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area, and with those sites a roll call of Illinois conservation organizations that ranges from national agencies to state and county bureaus to NGOs; the U.S. Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy.

In all this — remnants scattered like lithic flakes, restoration projects sprouting from corn stubble, a variety of institutions as diverse and dispersed as their biotic relicts — Kankakee is a cameo of the Illinois conundrum. No single site, institution, or vision contains it all or organizes the pieces. There is no commanding height; not topographically, not institutionally, not intellectually. A federal presence is muted, quarantined on checkerboard hills in the far south. There is no domineering private landowner — no Weyerhaeuser, no Ted Turner -– to deform the space-time of land use. There is no counterforce to challenge the industrial plow. What the pieces and players share is a variously defined commitment to nature protection. They are, like the Potawatomi, peoples of the prairie, which means they are also peoples of fire. …

They differ in goals. Some believe that the task demands a way to connect the fragments into a whole, at least conceptually; they seek out corridors to join the parts, or ideas to help identify which pieces should be protected in what order. Others believe that salvation depends on size. Unless the protected areas are large, unless they contain within themselves all the required parts, the whole cannot hope to survive against fragmenting forces of regional or continental scope, not to mention globalization. Yet the practical scale of either strategy is so small that the atolls they oversee may both be drowned in the rising sea of a modern economy. Chicago adds more rambling exurbs yearly than the state does protected preserves. Farmland converts to city, not nature.

Each site resembles a miniature, the ecological equivalent of a ship in a bottle. Its minuscule scale allows for some processes to persist, and for the abolition of known destructive practices. But they struggle to become a whole; the separate parts cannot absorb the roaming elk and bison (and successor cattle), or their predators, that helped define the historic scene. Their collective fauna is one that travels by air, and that is also tiny; the faunal diversity consists of birds and especially invertebrates.

… This matters because some management practices cannot be indefinitely shrunk, any more than Newtonian physics can scale evenly from quasar to atom. A butterfly and a bison demand different minimums of place.

So, too, does fire. In a miniature landscape it acts more like a blowtorch than a free-ranging wind. It behaves like an implement of horticulture, a clipper or hoe, no longer feeding itself as it propagates but consuming what it is served. The patches resemble cages in an open-air zoo, or to mix in a more benign metaphor, like rooms in a hospice. The ecology of a candle bears little kinship with that of a prairie aflame. No one knows the scaling laws for fire ecology that might join the nano-niches of a prairie refugia to a boreal crown fire; they only know they must have fire.

… This is boutique burning, almost a farmer’s market of handcraft fires. California’s Cedar fire burned an order of magnitude more acres in one savage surge than the Greater Kankakee has under its collective protection.

But such metrics miss the point: it is not the number of scorched acres but the richness of their impact that matters. Acre for acre, probably more comes out of the Illinois burning than from all the firing of southern loblolly pine plantations and of generic western wildlands. Here, fire is the critical catalyst, without which the land cannot be defibrillated back to integral prairie and healthy savanna. Fire alone can’t make that restoration work, but nothing done without fire can succeed.

Nachusa Grasslands

… The fire story at Nachusa is simple enough to state. Fire initiates the conversion, and once it has worked that alchemy repeated burning perpetuates the revived biota. Restoring prairie has meant restoring fire: this much is unexceptional, however quirky the process might appear to deep ecologists intrinsically wary of Roundup and flame. Rather, Nachusa’s natural character resides in its present expression, not its history -– or as William James famously described pragmatism, “By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.”

Yet there is a second narrative of fire restoration at work as well, in which fire is returned not only to the land but to the hand. The reconstruction of Nachusa reinstates fire to ordinary people. The volunteers, who do much of the hard work of gathering and disseminating seeds, clearing invasive shrubs and weeding new acres, also do the burning. As much as reinstating big bluestem and lady fern, Nachusa has returned the torch to folk practitioners, the kind of fire wielders who sustained the prairie peninsula through millennia. The people of the new prairie have become people of the new fire. …

… The simplistic yet orthodox narrative for justifying the restoration of fire on public wildlands is that nature had set fires and misguided public agencies extinguished them, and the outcome is the shamble of present-day fire regimes. Such a narrative implies that restoration means no longer suppressing nature’s fires. It means that people have to quit interfering with nature’s logic. Nature will then begin deleveraging the landscape into it proper state.

Yet the record for virtually every landscape is that people had set most of history’s fires, and this leads to the conclusion that the missing fires -– those that have disappeared over the past century — are the result of people no longer acting as we have acted throughout our existence as a species. Less and less burning got done because there were fewer and fewer burners to do it.

Recession and Restoration

The ice age receded, across a span of 10,000 years, with a succession of geologic spasms like the Kankakee torrent. The recolonization of that evacuated landscape by life took several millennia, and after the climatic maximum of the Hypsithermal, humanity helped stabilize its dimensions and the resulting pastiche of prairie and savanna by regular firing.

The iron age ended with the bleeding soils from a thousand cuts and with a slow smothering beneath a blanket of domesticated flora. Its regeneration will take centuries, if not longer, quarter section by quarter section, township by township, and it will act out against a fast-morphing climate, likely the byproduct of an industrial burning run amok. But it will happen at the hands of a humanity wielding fire.

This is not the kind of creation story or heroic narrative that American environmentalism has traditionally thrived on. But it is what must happen if nature’s economy is to continue to produce the goods and services we want. It’s a story in which the Hippocratic injunction to first do no harm means you will harm if you don’t first do. And it’s a story in which the people who want prairie must also become a people who want fire.

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