Networking for Ecosystem Health

Fire Learning Network has made a positive difference in the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains

A decade ago, The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service and other land management partners created the U.S. Fire Learning Network (FLN), to improve ecological fire restoration across the country. Today, there are eight regional networks. One of those is focused on the Southern Blue Ridge. Within that landscape, a group of partners is working on the central escarpment of the Blue Ridge. They, like their counterparts in other regions, talk a lot about something called “desired future conditions,” - what the forest should look like in the future if properly managed for ecological health, particularly with the use of fire.

John Crockett and Josh Kelly are pretty sure they know how the desired future condition of the central Blue Ridge Mountains should look. But, the planning – making it happen – that’s the hard part. That’s why the two are involved in the Fire Learning Network.
Crockett is the District Ranger for the Grandfather Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest. Kelly is an Asheville-based staff biologist with Wildlaw, a nonprofit environmental law firm. You might not think of the two organizations working together. Even Crockett sometimes has a hard time believing. “Having the opportunity to sit down with Josh and work together, I never envisioned this kind of cooperation.”

Both Kelly and Crockett agree that bringing back fire to the Blue Ridge is essential to ecosystem health. “I got involved with the FLN, because I and a lot of my colleagues were concerned about an increase in prescribed fire in national forests,” says Kelly. “As a biologist, I knew fire was important, but I wasn’t sure it was being applied in the right way.”

Kelly says he decided he could best make a difference from within – working with various land managers to ensure that fire was applied correctly. “Rather than being distrustful or nervous about the way things were going, I chose to be involved.”

David Ray, director of the Conservancy’s Asheville office, says the partnership is working. “Josh took the initiative to call this group together to focus on the Grandfather District,” he says. “John is focusing on the big picture – an ecological prioritization for areas to be burned that are big enough to make a difference.”

The Grandfather District is 193,000 acres. Seventy percent of the area is fire adapted, meaning it needs fire for ecosystem health. “We’ve got the most fire adapted species in the Southern Blue Ridge,” says Crockett. “So, how much are we going to burn a year?”
Crockett says that pulling off a big burn in the mountains is difficult given the terrain and timing. In the past, the district focused on smaller prescribed burns that they could complete in a day, but that didn’t allow for “landscape burns,” big burns that would make a real difference in an ecosystem. His push has been to make the burns larger, lasting over the course of several days. Late this winter, he accomplished that goal – a 1,950-acre burn near Lake James. “Our goal is to top ourselves with every burn, until we reach our threshold,” he says. “We’re going for 2,500 acres next.”

The Conservancy’s North Carolina Fire Manager Margit Bucher, one of the leaders of the Southern Blue Ridge FLN, asked each landscape within the FLN to create a map of desired future conditions. The Grandfather District is furthest along in the process. Ray gives a large part of that credit to Crockett’s leadership within the district and Kelly’s zeal for making it happen. “John jumped on this opportunity, coming to every meeting and encouraging partners to be involved the planning,” Ray says.

For his part, Kelly wishes that there was more of this kind of partnership in public land management. “There is a false dichotomy between hands on preservation and hands on management, when there is actually a whole spectrum between those things. Unfortunately, the conservation movement has often polarized the debate.”

Ray, Kelly, Crockett and the other partners – sitting around a table at the District Headquarters in Nebo – are doing their part to work toward a happy conservation medium. The region’s oak forests, Carolina hemlock, Table Mountain pine and countless other fire-dependent species need that kind of conservation cooperation.