According to Karen McKenzie, public affairs staff officer for the Talladega National Forest, said “I’m actually an advocate of controlled burning.”
Scott Layfield, who oversees burns in the national forest, explained that “We’ve done studies in the past that show these burns are ecologically sound. We usually burn about 30,000 to 35,000 acres per year out of 220,000 acres total. And those burns are done between January and June, before the weather gets too dry. Half of those are done during the dormant season, and the rest are during the growing season, usually starting in March. And we’re not burning the same places every year. We can’t do growing season burns more than two years in a row, and there is usually a three or four-year period between burns. Once we get an area into a condition we like, we’ll shift to dormant season burns to modify the vegetation.”
Management in the Talladega National Forest also comes with a couple of unique challenges, McKenzie said. One of these is the attempt to bring the long leaf pine back to its historic numbers, which is also a part of the second challenge: reviving the population of endangered red cockaded woodpeckers. Both benefit from active burns.”
Biologist Art Henderson said right now there are six or seven active colonies of the endangered woodpeckers in the Talladega National Forest, mostly toward the south end, in addition to about 20 colonies in other national forests in Alabama.
“We get our marching orders through the endangered species act,” he explained. “Our goal is to have 100 colonies, and we have to meet federal requirements. The long leaf pine ecosystem is a lot more diverse than the way things are right now, and we have a huge list of species that we have to manage, including wild turkeys. But the turkeys are a little lower on the list. Lots of people have the conception that this is done at random, but it’s not. It’s done by law.
“The conception of growing season burn is negative, and we will inevitably take some nests. But if you go back and look at an area burned a year or two years later, the nesting will be even stronger. It may not be optimum for a turkey hunter in that area, that year. But overall, everyone, even the turkeys, benefit.”
Randy Liles, who works with the Alabama Department of Wildlife and Freshwater Fish, said the National Wild Turkey Association has conducted several studies showing the benefit of growing season burns for turkeys.
“That’s the main reason there are so many turkeys at Choccolocco now,” he said. “I haven’t done any kind of scientific study myself, but I worked up there for 28 years, and while there were always turkeys there, there are more now than ever.”
McKenzie said even displaced turkeys (and woodpeckers) will often renest.
The key difference between a dormant burn and growing season burn is that “a dormant burn doesn’t change the vegetation. Afterward, it just comes back. In a growing season burn, you get more grasses and legumes coming back, you get more diverse insect populations and the kind of things turkeys flock to. Deer love them also. When you get rid of some of your hardwood, you have deer candy. We have a quail area that was significantly changed by one burn. Many people can’t believe the difference after just a couple of months,” Liles said.
Henderson agreed. “A dormant burn is more about clearing. A growing burn is more about renewing the forest floor. You get more grass, more diversity and an expanded food web. The key is to have grasses and legumes. You have to look at the big picture.”
The burns also mimic the natural process of burning, which generally comes from lightning strikes in the spring and summer seasons. As McKenzie pointed out, however, there are now houses close to the national forest that must be protected, so natural fires have to be controlled. Controlled burns serve the same thinning purpose now.
Henderson added “I wish we could actually do more controlled burns to better support the historical process. It really is the best way to do landscape change.”
Liles added that “private land owners tend to agree with us on this, too. It’s the cheapest and most effective way to do it. It’s devastating if it happens at the wrong place or the wrong time, but if managed, you see the influence immediately.”
Unfortunately, McKenzie explained, the national forest allowed to grow out of balance “mainly because of the success of Smokey the Bear…Because of the lack of fires for the last 70 or 80 years, the natural balance got knocked off.”
Layfield then explained that there is a long planning process that must be in place before a controlled burn begins. Each burn requires a 30 to 40-page checklist, and conditions must be ideal. The amount of natural fuel available must be taken into account, as does rainfall, relative humidity, wind direction and speed and a host of other factors. Environmental studies must be done, as well as studies of impact on water and soil, and there is public input and consultation with adjacent land owners as well.
The planning process alone can take days.
Layfield said he is an avid turkey hunter himself, and has even “bagged a couple while the stumps were still burning.”
But the proof ultimately is in seeing. Layfield and McKenzie showed a site that had been burned about a month ago, and contrasted it with an area across the road that had never been burned. The pines and older hardwoods, with thicker bark, survived the fire, but many of the other hardwoods (which are moving back toward their historic positions higher on the ridge) were gone, and sunlight came through the openings. Grass, blueberries, ferns and other plants were already appearing to grow and thrive.
“People need to be patient,” he said. “You come back a week after a burn and the floor is just black. But give it a month or two and you won’t recognize it.”
The trees also benefit by not being so densely packed and competitive for water and sunlight, conditions which are often worsened by insect infestation.
The lower growing plants also can provide shelter for smaller animals, especially from hawks.
“We’re not anti-hardwood; we just want things to be more landscape appropriate,” he said.
Contact Chris Norwood at firstname.lastname@example.org