New York

Eastern: Blazing a Trail

Situated between the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River, the Shawangunk Mountain Ridge is one of the most important sites for biological diversity in the northeastern United States. So why are we setting it on fire? Fire and forest ecologist Gabe Chapin has the answers.
"There is nothing better than watching a blackened landscape turn green."

Why is a fire management program important to the Shawangunks?

Gabe Chapin:

Without fire, the unique forest types and biological diversity found on the ridge would not exist today. Fire plays a critical role in maintaining the health of the Pine Barrens and chestnut oak forest. Without fire, other hardwood species (such as red maple) gradually invade, dramatically altering the unique habitats that are critical for the landscape’s many rare plant and animal species.
We need fire not only to protect nature, but also people. Ironically, fire suppression has created a build-up of fuel on the forest floor, setting the stage for unusually severe fires – a threat to the nearby homes as well as the forest.

How has fire management on the ridge changed over time?

Gabe Chapin:

Humans have been lighting fires on the ridge for thousands of years to promote wild food sources, such as chestnuts, acorns and blueberries, and to improve habitat for important game species. More recently In the 1800s and early 1900s, there were seasonal blueberry picker camps on the ridge. The last thing they often did at the end of the summer was to light a fire. The fire helped ensure a healthy crop of blueberries and huckleberries over the next few years.
Rumor has it that some of their preferred ignition techniques involved tying flaming rags to the tail of a turtle or lighting various other kinds of wildlife on fire to run through the woods spreading flames as they went. With modern equipment and safety measures, we obviously do things a little bit differently now. In one sense though, you do have to admire the sensibility and ecological knowledge of previous generations and cultures. They knew how to not only live with fire in the ecosystem, but how to use it to their own best advantage.

The history of fire is quite fascinating. Was there something specific that led you to a career as a forest and fire ecologist?

Gabe Chapin:

Nearly all of my free time growing up was spent in the northwestern Connecticut woods, and I think that left me with a deep appreciation for nature and just how generally cool it is. It was sort of a natural progression for me to move from that into wanting to learn more about forest management and eventually ecology and science. I am interested in how science can inform and guide land management and conservation. One of the greatest things about my job is that I can do both the science along with the hands-on work …it’s the best of both worlds.

What fascinates you about the work you do?

Gabe Chapin:

I have always been fascinated by fire ecology and how a natural event that we view as so destructive and dangerous is really a critical and necessary process for maintaining certain ecosystems. There is just something about the paradoxical nature of burning an area, and then observing this amazing re-growth and recovery that I find so intriguing. There is nothing better than watching a blackened landscape turn green, then walking through it and finding surprises like a certain plant growing that had not been there before the fire, or watching all kinds of wildlife move back into the area and utilize the post-fire habitat.

What are some of the challenges of the work you do?

Gabe Chapin:

We need to implement fire management strategies in a landscape that includes homes, recreational visitors, invasive species, and an overabundance of deer. I think about fire management in the context of creating a “fire-compatible” landscape. To me, this means that local residents understand the uniqueness of their landscape. They also appreciate the value of fire in the ecosystem and support management tools like prescribed fire. The challenge is in educating people so that they understand there is a whole lot more to fire management than just trying to burn as many acres as possible.

Have you ever feared for your life at work?

Gabe Chapin:

I have, but not on the fireline as you might assume. I was out walking off-trail at Sam’s Point Preserve on some ledges and I slipped and fell into a small crevice. I had no idea about the crevice’s depth. Some of the ledges are 75 plus feet tall and they have really deep fissures. If I had been hurt, no one knew where I was. Luckily, I only ended up falling about five feet and came out of it with only minor bruises to my body and ego.

What do you love most about your job?

Gabe Chapin:

It is the satisfaction of being able to see the “on-the-ground” results of the work that we do that excites me. After all of the preparation that goes into a prescribed burn, it is incredibly gratifying take a step back after a long day of burning and see the results of our efforts. My favorite moments are always outside. With all of the planning, email and paperwork, it can be easy to lose sight of what we are working so hard to protect. Sometimes it is just nice to go outside and be reminded of why we do what we do.

Gabe Chapin is a fire ecologist in Eastern New York.


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