Florida is well-known for its beaches, blue water and year-round sun, but it also has a surprising wild side. It is home to pine forests, coral reefs and the famous Everglades wetland, the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. Here, manatees swim in crystal-clear rivers, baby alligators practice their hunting skills and miniature deer roam free. Every year, this state faces the full forces of nature: from wildfires to flooding to powerful hurricanes. Now, a growing human population, climate change and abandoned exotic pets – like the Burmese python which can eat alligators – are added threats to this wild paradise. This new documentary from PBS tells the story about how Florida’s ecosystems continue to weather the storms with the help of pioneering scientists and ongoing conservation efforts.
Q&A with David Printiss, North Florida Conservation Manager
David is featured in the PBS Nature Wild Florida documentary describing “Mother Nature’s great rejuvenator,” the controlled burns that sustain the longleaf pine habitat at Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve. We asked David a few questions about this process.
Q: Florida's Panhandle is featured in Nature's Wild Florida episode. What makes the Apalachicola River region so unique?
A: The Apalachicola River region is one of five biodiversity hotspots in North America. What this means is not only are there large number of species here, but also that many of these plants and animals occur no where else on the planet. For example, there are areas within the longleaf forest where you can find up to 50 different species of plants in one square meter! The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve protects and supports biodiversity and longleaf forest in this spectacular region.
Q: Why is it important to protect and restore longleaf pine forests?
A: Frequently burned, well managed forests not only provide homes to a wealth of plant and animal species, but are also the chief source of clean drinking water for our cities. These same forests also provide important natural resources such as wood for home construction and paper production. Many communities in the Apalachicola Region depend on healthy forests for jobs and as a tourist destination attraction.
Q: Why does The Nature Conservancy focus efforts on longleaf pine forest restoration among the landscapes they protect or manage?
A: In the longleaf forest, the diversity is from the knees down. The blanket of groundcover plants is in itself quite diverse, but it also provides a home to an abundance of wildlife species. Together, along with the needles that fall from the longleaf pine, this rich blanket of plants also provides the light fuels needed to carry the low intensity fires that keep the forest healthy. Unfortunately, in many areas the groundcover layer has been lost, leading to a significant reduction in both species diversity and the capacity of the forest to support low energy, safe prescribed fires. In the mid-80s The Nature Conservancy in Florida recognized this problem and spent the next several decades developing a solution. Now, TNC works with several private and public partners to restore hundreds of acres of longleaf forest groundcover each year. This restoration returns both the species diversity and the all-important forest regenerator – fire!
Q: How often are fires ignited? What time of year is this practice most common? What is the fire crew like?
A: The amount of time between fires in southeastern longleaf forests varies. Most land managers aim for a 2-3 year return cycle. Fires can occur during any month of the year depending on the objectives of the burn. Fires that are needed to reduce large accumulations of fuel occur in the winter months. Fires that are focused on mimicking the natural fire season and result in the best effects for the native plants and animals are scheduled from mid-April through June. Just a few short days after a burn, green growth can be seen along the post-fire landscape.
We’ve got a knowledgeable and diverse fire team that conducts prescribed fire not only on our property, but across the state with multiple partners. Last year, one of our Apalachicola colleagues led a prescribed fire at The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve with a full crew of women. In fact, we’ve got a great video and "Women on the Firelines" story about that work featured on our website.
Q: Is Florida the only state to practice prescribed fire?
A: No, fire is an important ecological process all across North America. Just about everywhere you find diverse upland forest and grassland habitats you will find those places managed with fire. Prescribed fire is also used in numerous agricultural applications to recycle nutrients and prepare the soil for re-planting.
Q: Tell us about the wildlife in the longleaf pine forest.
A: The application of prescribed fire reduces dangerous forest fuel accumulations and recycles precious nutrients that are locked up within those downed branches and thick undergrowth. Deer, turkey, quail as well as all of our rare species such as red-cockaded woodpecker, eastern indigo snake and frosted flatwoods salamander depend on fire to keep the forest open and to again, make the forest’s “vitamins” available to the next generation.
Less than one week following a fire, the plants in the groundcover start to re-sprout and life begins anew. Gopher tortoises are quick to take advantage of this lush, new growth.
During prescribed fires both swallow-tailed kites and Mississippi kites gather above the fire and take advantage of the massive number of insects that take flight to escape the fire. It is not unusual to have 30 kites above a fire in May; I have even seen a swallow-tailed kite pluck a small snake from the top of an oak tree.
Species such as the Florida black bear also depend on fire to rejuvenate the forest. Like all of the other animals in the forest, the bears instinctively know how to avoid fire and quickly resume “business as usual” activities following prescribed burning.
Q: Can you debunk any misunderstandings about fire?
A: Because fire is so frequently associated with destructive events, education is a constant need. Safety and public welfare are top on the list of prescribed fire managers. Much time and thinking is given to the planning of every prescribed fire in order to achieve objectives in a safe manner. An important point to make is the use of prescribed fire is actually a safety measure: if fires are not conducted by professionals during time-windows of predictable, low intensity weather, fuels will accumulate in the forest and dangerous, difficult to control wildfires will eventually follow. It is also important to note that nearly all of the plants and animals that live in our southern forests are not only adapted to live with fire, but also actually require fire to thrive.
Q: Is there any danger involved in prescribed fire?
A: All fires have the potential to be dangerous – it is fire. As the complexity and inherent risk of a planned fire increase, fire managers develop sophisticated contingency plans to address those complexities and risks. If a risk cannot be mitigated, the fire does not occur.
About PBS Nature
Now in its 38th season on PBS, Nature is a voice for the natural world, bringing the wonders of wildlife and stories of conservation to millions of American viewers. The series has won more than 700 honors from the television industry, the international wildlife film communities and environmental organizations, including 18 Emmys and three Peabody Awards. Nature’s award-winning website, features full episodes, short films, behind-the-scenes content, nature articles, educational resources and more. The series is available for streaming simultaneously on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS Video app, which is available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast. PBS station members can view episodes via Passport (contact your local PBS station for details).
Check local listings for airing and streaming of PBS Nature Wild Florida on February 12!
The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in more than 70 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.