The following article was originally published on beginningfarmers.org by George Lindemann.
I touched the plastic lighter to the base of a parched clump of sedge grass, squeezed the trigger and watched the flames crawl up the dead plant. What started as a small flame swiftly morphed into a raging expanse of fire. The noise was deafening. Even though the burn was “controlled,” I couldn’t help but feel scared and awed by the raw power of the fire as it consumed acre after acre of land. At Coal Creek Farm, our 5,000-acre property on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, we are reintroducing pre-WWII farming techniques. Controlled burns are being used to create native grass savannas. We are trying to develop an environmentally sensitive, profitable cow/calf operation, while simultaneously improving the ecology of our land.
History of Fire as a Tool
Before 1492, herds of herbivores as well as Tennessee’s Native American tribes helped to clear strategic mountaintops. These balds were originally stranded remnants of tundra, left behind as the glaciers retreated. Roaming herds of mastodon, elk and bison would regularly graze these grassy peaks. Native Americans used fire to keep these strategically located mountaintops from becoming overgrown. Peaks were burned year after year until trees disappeared and grass prairies remained. These mountaintop grass areas served two main purposes. They were prime lookout points used for spotting migrating animal herds as well as lookout points for spotting prowling enemy tribes. Native Americans didn’t only burn mountaintops; they burned fertile valleys as well. Over time, these valleys became lush grass prairies, which also attracted bison, elk and deer. Prairies and mountaintop balds assured natives that roaming herds would be attracted to specific geographic areas and spotted in time for a successful hunt. After centuries of managed fires, much of the Southeast, including the Cumberland Plateau, was covered with grasslands and savannas (a grass area with intermittent trees). When European settlers arrived, they not only encountered vast forests, they encountered abundant grasslands as well.
European settlers adopted Native American burning techniques and continued using fires to maintain and create grasslands. Eventually, population centers grew and some fires (natural or controlled) began destroying property as well as lives. Beginning in the 1930s the federal government determined that preventing fires was essential for public safety. The U.S. Forest Service’s Smoky Bear campaign endeavored to teach all U.S. citizens about the dangers of forest fires. Generations of rural, suburban and urban Americans were raised to believe that large-scale fires were always bad. Year after year we were taught that forest fires were the enemy, and anyone who had any part in starting or encouraging a fire was bad. The campaign was too successful. Property and lives were saved, but not without unintended consequences. Smokey the Bear drastically reduced accidental fires, but also reduced controlled burns. Without fire, trees grew unimpeded and grasslands as well as grassland-dependent wildlife began to disappear. Within a few decades, entire forests grew back, replacing savannas and prairies.
Eliminating controlled burns had even more unforeseen consequences. Before Smokey the Bear, controlled fires would periodically consume dead leaves and plant matter found on the forest floor. Without periodic fires, these combustible materials accumulated. When wildfires eventually struck, they were amplified by the abundant and dry combustible plant matter. Historically, controlled burns not only helped maintain grasslands, the fires also helped reduce the size and intensity of wildfires. Up until a few years ago, if anyone had suggested that fire was good, I would not have believed them. Owning thousands of logged acres taught me otherwise.
Logging and Lawsuits
Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau is one of the world’s largest forested plateaus. While it is ecologically and environmentally significant on a global scale, there is disagreement among conservationists about how to preserve it.
Most of the Cumberland Plateau was clear-cut for the first time nearly 100 years ago. The introduction of affordable heavy machinery literally changed the landscape. Clear-cutting machinery left a uniform carpet-like area of similarly aged hardwood. Over the last decade, Tennessee’s home-based environmentalists and scientists began to realize that the challenges facing the plateau were much more complicated than just preventing clear-cutting. The Cumberland Plateau had historically always been a patchwork of old and new trees, combined with grasslands and savannas. Environmentalists began to understand the importance of conserving and recreating an ecologically diverse plateau, one that better resembled the pre-WWII landscape.
After the introduction of clear-cutting, environmental groups from outside Tennessee were mostly focused on preserving the hardwood forests. In 2010 the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) successfully sued one of the largest timber-owning companies (Bowater) and forced them to agree to stop clear-cutting the Plateau’s hardwood forests. Clear-cutting is the preferred method for corporate loggers. Heavy machinery is used to remove all mature wood in a given area, leaving the land ‘clear’ of all trees. Before the existence of heavy cutting machinery, loggers would selectively cut specific trees and individually drag them out of the woods. Smaller trees would be left standing, with the ecology and look of the woods largely unchanged.
When the NRDC lawsuit was eventually settled, Bowater sold most of its logging land in the region. NRDC thought that they had prevailed. But smaller landowners who bought the tracts from Bowater continued many of the practices that Bowater was forced to abandon. Clear-cutting continued under different owners.
When I bought Coal Creek nearly 15 years ago, I knew that the land was a gem in the rough even though nearly half of it had just been clear-cut. For decades, Coal Creek Farm and the surrounding forests had been managed for timber production. Timber forests are pretty; clear-cuts are not. I believed that I only had two options for reclaiming the logged areas. The first option required a substantial investment in bulldozers and excavators to remove brush and tree stumps. The freshly cleared land would be well suited to planting non-native, cool season grass fields. These fescue- (grass) based fields perform very well during the cooler spring and fall months. Cool season grasses are hardy and provide excellent forage for cattle. Unfortunately, expansive fescue fields are not native to the Plateau, and discourage native species recruitment. It’s not what I had in mind.
The second option was to leave the clear-cut land and wait decades as new tree growth worked its way around dead tree stumps and logging debris. Neither option was particularly appealing, so I did a combination of the two. I cleared some land and I let some thicket grow.
Within a few years of a clear-cut, land turns into what is called a ‘thicket.’ In Cumberland County, Tennessee, thicket is considered bad. After three or four years the plants grow taller than people. The coverage becomes so thick that it creates a barrier of foliage. Thickets are actually natural. The problem is the size of these thickets. Thickets historically occurred in small patches across the landscape where natural disease, pathogens, windstorm and fire disturbed the forests. Large scale clear-cutting creates an over abundance of thicket. Vast acres of post clear-cut thicket provide poor habitat for native flora and fauna. They look like what they are, a big tangled vegetative mess. A blight on the landscape.
I was unhappy about the thicket. Every time I drove by them, I bemoaned the logging that left the land in such a state. I even went so far as to avoid these areas of my farm. I decided to ‘clean up’ all of Coal Creek. But how could I do it in an affordable way?
My 65-year-old farm manager Harold grew up in Cumberland County (as did his parents, grandparents and great grandparents). His feel for the land is extraordinary. He is young enough to appreciate new farming techniques and old enough to remember what things were like 50 years ago. As I discussed the thicket issue with him, he recalled that ‘back then’ economic growth in the region caused people to fence their land. In the ‘old days,’ ranges existed where farmers simply released their cattle into large expanses of natural landscape. People didn’t usually buy these lands; they were just available to the public, owned by neighbors, the government or absentee landowners. When I asked Harold why the trees didn’t overtake these rangelands, he said that “back then, every spring, Granddaddy would round up us kids and everyone would help burn the rangelands.” Burning was the way they prevented the trees from growing and overrunning the savannas.
Harold explained that since the introduction of bulldozers, farmers routinely used heavy machinery to clear land. When pressed on the cost of such efforts, Harold recalled that the government encouraged farmers to use machines and that grants and loans were often available to clear former savannas. Clear-cut land usually remained in logger’s hands and was allowed to regrow for the next harvest. Not many people bought large tracts of clear-cut land and attempted to take them out of production; it’s just not how things have been done in Cumberland County, Tennessee.
Controlled Burns on the Farm – The Burn Doctor
We are environmentally-sensitive cattle farmers, not loggers. Nevertheless, much of Coal Creek’s acreage had already been clear-cut by the prior owner. As I continued to explore smart options for managing the land, I met a young Ph.D. candidate who was studying at the University of Tennessee. Andy was writing his dissertation about fire and its effect on regenerating native grasses. At the time, five years ago, I was shocked that fire could regenerate anything. Didn’t Smokey teach me otherwise? When I told my young kids about Andy, they agreed that fires were not good. “Dad, haven’t you ever heard of Smokey the Bear?” The two older children followed with “Dad, who in the world would want to waste time studying something as destructive as fire?” Andy was instantly nicknamed, ‘the Burn Doctor.’ When he first met my young twins, they asked if indeed he truly was a ‘Burn Doctor?’ He became our ‘Burn Doctor.’ Over months of emails, hikes, tours and even river rafting trips, Andy and I became friends. He patiently taught me about fire. A fortuitous meeting with Andy slowly germinated into a third option for Coal Creek’s clear-cut land: controlled burns on the farm.
Once the tree canopy is reduced through burning, grasses will grow around the occasional tree, creating a savanna. There is no need to plant grass, as a variety of preexisting, dormant seeds lay hidden underneath the earth. Both the flame and the sun awaken this ‘seed bank.’ The ‘Burn Doctor’ explained that buying and spreading seeds would not be necessary. My response was quick and to the point. “All we have to do is light a fire and the seeds just wake up? For free?” What he was proposing was nothing new; it’s how land management used to be done. That made sense to me.
Savannas had historically existed on the Cumberland Plateau and were often used as part-time grazing land for local farmers. The savannas, combined with grassland prairies, were a part of the larger ecosystem on the Plateau and much of the Southeastern United States.
The goal of controlled burns on the farm is to recreate savannas, which cover approximately one-fourth of the farm. The native grasses will provide foraging for our cattle as well as provide habitat for endangered and threatened grassland wildlife. The savannas will require no costly fertilizer, lime or pesticides. Native grasses grow when cool season fescue grasses are dormant. By feeding Coal Creek Farm’s cows with native grasses, we are experimenting with a new system for grassland creation and maintenance. It allows us to rest our cool season grass fields when warm season grasses are abundant. Cattle can then be rotated from one type of field to another depending on the month and the health of the vegetation. If cool season grasses are not performing well due to weather, season or pests, there is a good chance that warm season grasses might be doing just fine.
While the concept is historically and scientifically sound, it isn’t regularly practiced on a commercial scale. For the last 70 years it has been easier to use heavy clearing machinery and non-native grasses to feed cows. At Coal Creek, we are hoping to provide a financially-sound and environmentally-friendly alternative for farmers. We are using history as our guide. The old ways are being brought back, with some modern updates.
What’s Old is New Again
Controlled burns on the farm level the ecological playing field, regenerate soil and encourage native grass growth. Safely executed controlled burns also reduce fuel available to wildfire. It is no wonder that some Cumberland Plateau environmentalists have become proponents. Even so, many residents are still against any man-made fire. Politicians do not appreciate calls from constituents complaining about smoke clouds generated by a neighbor’s controlled burn. Yet rural Appalachia is historically a farm-friendly region. While there are complaints and naysayers, residents are generally open-minded about a neighbor’s need to burn.
Permits, Safety and Timing
At Coal Creek Farm we are attempting controlled burns on the farm of about five hundred acres during a 12-month period. We try to burn all year long, but certain seasons are more successful than others. Some seasons require government issued permits; some do not. In the summer, permits are not required because plants are very green and moist. The air is usually humid making it very difficult for a fire to spread.
Early fall burns are effective at killing trees because the sap is still in the branches. A good burn will not only kill the treetop, but also limit the tree’s ability to re-sprout next year by preventing the season’s resources from being stored in the roots. However, when there is sap in the branches, trees don’t burn easily. Early fall burns spread swiftly in times of drought, when leaves and wood are drier than normal. But when there are droughts, fire departments usually intervene and ban all burning. An early fall burn must happen when it’s just dry enough for a fire to spread, but not so dry that controlled burns on the farm are banned.
On the Cumberland Plateau, burn permits are required for any controlled burn between October 15 and May 15. This rule exists because during the late fall and winter months, fire retardant tree sap resides in the underground root ball and the branches are more susceptible to flame. Farmers try to burn during the winter for these very reasons. But winter is often a rainy season. Rain and fire don’t mix.
When winter begins to transition into spring, the conditions generally dry up for a few weeks, and the wind becomes more consistent. Farmers watch the weather hoping for a calm, dry day to burn. Last winter/spring at Coal Creek, there were only a handful of potential burn days. When the time is right, we drop whatever other plans exist and seize the moment. Coal Creek’s most successful burn period is early spring, right before the leaves get too green. The wind seems to blow more consistently, drying the land surface. With some luck, a calm day appears, and a permit will be issued. The lack of significant sap in the trunks and branches helps the fire spread; branches and trunks are at their most vulnerable while they are brittle. Dry, brown leaves are still on the ground with dead native grass clumps everywhere.
Early spring burns kill the top of (referred to as top kill) the trees; the sap remains in the root ball and enables the tree to start growing again. The fire is unlikely to kill the root ball of a mature tree. Still, if the top of the tree is killed, branches will begin to drop creating fuel for the next fire season. The visible part of the tree will stand for a few years until weather, decay or an animal knocks it over. In the meantime, red-headed woodpeckers (one of my favorite birds) and other animals will make good use of the dead tree. Once fallen, the tree will help the next fire by providing dry, sap-free, flammable wood. Gaps in the canopy allow the sun to hit the ground in locations that might not have seen light in a long time. New grasses will grow, cows will come eat and fertilize, and in the fall the dead grasses will become fuel for the next fire. It’s our very own Coal Creek Lion King moment. We have recreated what was historically the Cumberland Plateau’s ‘circle of life’
It is important to note that each fire is different. Early fall burns can damage large trees because the sap is not yet in the ground and the roots are vulnerable. Spring burns carry well but usually only top kill. There are even more subtleties. ‘Flash’ burns can travel very swiftly across the land eliminating much of the dead grass and leaves, but have no effect on hard woods. Fires that burn hot and slow accomplish much more. Andy, the ‘Burn Doctor’, spends his time researching these variations. He studies how the fire works and how to improve efficiency. As much as we all love the Burn Doctor, because he can prescribe what each technique and season might accomplish, a plan and real life are never quite the same. Controlled burns on the farm is both a science and an art. Between our farm manager and our Burn Doctor we have the best of all worlds—science and art.
Fire Virgin No Longer
Our philosophy at Coal Creek Farm is “any day that it is dry enough to burn (and you can get a permit) is a good day to burn.” Controlled burns on the farm are a complex and dangerous proposition. They require multiple hands as well as on-site experts. Some state agencies offer courses in safe fire techniques. These classes help people learn controlled burn regulations and best practices. Farmers with no family burning history are encouraged to participate in these classes before burning on their property. But classes are not required to receive a permit. As is often the case in rural Appalachia, ‘old timers’ without formal training are frequently as knowledgeable as trained experts. Some locals have burned since they were little and learned the proper safety techniques from parents and grandparents. Harold fits into this category.
The first controlled fire I ever lit was with Harold. It was a cool, early spring day, about four years ago. There was a light breeze blowing out of the south at about five miles an hour. The sun was bright and there was very little cloud cover. We were driving around the western side of the farm in an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) and I had been peppering Harold with my usual “what if” and “why not” questions, hoping to learn from his vast experience. Out of the blue, he announced, “today would be just fine to do us some burning.” We hadn’t planned anything, nor had we taken many precautions. But Harold’s experience and love of the land gives him a sixth sense. He just knows what to do and when. I can’t explain it much better than that. He decided that where we were standing was the perfect spot. We circumnavigated the 20 or so acre clear-cut area, and Harold pointed to a small stream. “The wind is blowing out of the south, and yonder creek ought to do just fine as a buffer. I’m gonna call the fire department real quick.” He pulled out his black flip phone and spoke to someone he seemed to know. He closed the phone and said, “Watch this.” Harold pulled out a small plastic lighter and touched the flame to a dead clump of sedge grass on the perimeter of the clear-cut. I couldn’t believe that such a small lighter’s flame could have much impact. Yet, in a matter of moments, acres and acres of land were on fire. I had never seen a large-scale fire like this. At first, I was awed and elated. Fires elicit primal reactions. Soon, I began to get scared. Would the fire stop? I had been encouraging Harold at first, yet now I was concerned. The flames were tall and burning ferociously, but once again Harold was right. About an hour later the fire ran into the creek and extinguished itself. The fire was done, but I was not. I was hooked.
Today Is the Day
When the day is right, everyone at Coal Creek stops whatever they are doing and helps with controlled burns on the farm. Once Harold determines that it is a good burn day, the fire department is called and if permits are necessary, the process begins. First, the weather charts are consulted. Ideally the winds will blow at five to 10 miles an hour in a consistent direction. We want the humidity below 40 percent, and the sun shining. Sunshine helps burn off dew and humidity; and who doesn’t like working outside on a sunny spring day?
If a licensed burn expert is on-site, a ‘burn plan’ is written down, spelling out all conditions and goals. The fire crew heads toward the general location of the burn. The wind determines which way a fire burns as well as which areas are to be burned. Fire prefers to burn up hill. An ideal location to start controlled burns on the farm is at the bottom of a hill, with the wind heading up slope. The burn is structured so that the wind will blow away from inhabited areas toward obstacles such as creeks, dirt roads or rock barriers.
A crucial technique for safe burning is the creation and/or maintenance of ‘fire lanes.’ State laws mandate that these road-like lanes be at least 10-feet wide. Ten feet is a minimum; lanes can be as wide as the topography warrants. They become impassible flame buffers. Fire needs fuel, thus fire lanes are usually raw dirt. During non-burning times, the lanes can serve as access trails. As soon as Harold determines the precise area to be burned, a tractor or bulldozer will pass over the appropriate lanes removing any vegetation. The fire crew then creates one more layer of safety by ‘back burning’ the edges of the targeted areas. A fire is lit about 10 feet away from the burn lane, allowing the wind to carry the flames the short distance; the fire will hopefully die out when it encounters the dirt lane. Adding this scorched zone to the burn lane increases the size of the fire lane buffer. If we are burning near a sensitive area, or near a home, the width of the ‘dead zone’ might double or even triple in size. Once all safety precautions are taken, its time to light the fire.
Lighting the fire is not always as easy as one would think. Good burn management calls for land parcel rotations. We allow fuel (dry leaves, grass clumps, as well as dead branches) to accumulate over one, two and even three-year cycles. A parcel of land which was burned last year might not have accumulated enough flammable material over the previous 12 months. It’s better to wait and allow for more growth and death. Consistent winds might dry another location more regularly and allow for annual burns. Choosing where, when and how often to burn is complex. Sometimes, conditions are perfect and a single match can set 100 acres on fire. Other times burn crews need to use fire-throwing propane tanks and walk the length of an identified burn site. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, the fire doesn’t carry, or it does so sparingly. Other times, a fire might travel through an area quickly, burning all the fuel while leaving the trees intact (flash fire). This is to be avoided, as fuel is needed to encourage future burns. The ideal fire burns slow and hot, damaging all trees in its wake.
Slow and hot controlled burns are our goal at Coal Creek Farm. We are trying to diminish thicket growth and make room for more native grass savannas. Resisting the urge to prematurely set a fire is not easy; there are so few good burn days. Knowing that the foliage will soon be too green causes all of us to be anxious. Sometimes, as we all decide whether to burn or not, I am too forceful an advocate. It is depressing to watch a swift burning ‘flash’ fire, knowing that all it has done is to eliminate fuels. On the other hand, indecision is not helpful either. My encouragement has led to some excellent burns… as well as unfortunate flash fires.
Participating in a safely executed controlled burns on the farm is always exciting, regardless of the outcome. On a good day, with a good burn, moments from lighting the first flame, the fire begins to rage. Flames travel slow and high. Once a few acres catch, the sound is deafening. The flames sound like a train running down a track. When certain poplar trees catch fire, they make a noise that sounds like a bottle rocket firecracker, the kind that shoots up sparks while making a fizzzzz-like sound. Flames can grow as tall as 25-feet, and the heat is unbearable. Keeping a safe distance and wearing appropriate clothes is crucial. Smoke travels downwind so the crew must make sure to stay upwind of the flames. The destructive power of any burn is mind-boggling. Knowing that the burn is attempting to recreate an imperiled habitat leaves me both inspired and gratified. The hours of safety precautions help me enjoy the fire knowing that the burn lanes will act as strong barriers protecting what needs to be protected. The fire will do its job and then die out when it hits the freshly turned dirt.
Once the burn is safely executed, there is a sense of accomplishment. I can feel new life being created. I get excited imagining the grassland birds migrating to the burned areas. I can’t wait to see the first signs of new life, which happen almost instantly. When the heat is gone, turtles, rabbits, and birds quickly appear in the newly burned landscape. They are looking for fresh food. A successful controlled burn can look like a war zone; but on closer inspection it is actually a new beginning for all sorts of plants and animals.
Burning our way to 1000 acres of savanna is not an easy task. Change at Coal Creek happens slowly. Unless you are very familiar with the landscape, you might think that the burn didn’t accomplish much. But if you take photos, and have a good eye, if you pay close attention, you can see the change as trees die, and new grass species begin to grow. At Coal Creek Farm, we are seeing the changes we hoped for. This past spring, we provided new grazing land for a herd of 30 cow/calf longhorns on a 60-acre burned site. None of us were sure how long the longhorn herd would be willing to browse the newly burned thicket. Cattle will moo in a very specific way when they are hungry. At first, we all waited on pins and needles, waiting for the all too familiar “there is no food in this field” moo. Three months later, the longhorns were still happily grazing in their newly burned acreage. What a treat to take land which had been blighted by a logger’s clear-cut and turn it into a native grass savanna. Using old fashioned controlled burns, we created new cattle grazing land at Coal Creek Farm. These controlled burns on the farm are so new and exciting to me. But they are old hat for the land. The plants and wildlife have always adapted to life with fire. It’s about time we did as well.