Sam Lindblom: Restoring Fire to Natural Systems

Fire, like rain and sunshine, has been an important part of our environment for millions of years, shaping the very nature of life on Earth. More than half of the terrestrial world, including almost all of North America, depends on fire to maintain healthy plants and animals and natural resources such as clean water.

The Nature Conservancy works to restore the natural role of fire in our landscapes and to conserve the rich diversity of life on Earth now and for future generations.

The Conservancy’s Sam Lindblom, director of land management in Virginia, discusses how prescribed fires give nature a boost at Warm Springs Mountain and other natural areas across Virginia.
"Fire is a major shaper of ecosystems, and we can restore it successfully. So that's why we focus so much on fire management."

Sam Lindblom
Director of land management in Virginia

What's your role at The Nature Conservancy?

Sam Lindblom:

My team works to maintain or create high-quality habitat, often for the benefit of rare and endangered species. Fire is a major shaper of ecosystems, and we can restore it successfully. So that’s why we focus so much on fire management.

So everything involved with fire — the places we burn, wildfires, fire-ecology research, planning, equipment, training — is part of my job. I also work with our agency partners to secure funding, and we help each other conduct fires on our respective lands.

What are the top priorities for Virginia’s fire program?

Sam Lindblom:

One is our Southern Rivers Program — working at our Piney Grove Preserve for red-cockaded woodpecker restoration and elsewhere with partners to restore longleaf pine and associated ecosystems.

The other is Warm Springs Mountain and the Allegheny Highlands. We’re burning in other parts of the Central Appalachians, but our work with the Forest Service on and around Warm Springs is really the focus.

What kind of changes are you seeing as we burn?

Sam Lindblom:

As we burn, we're seeing a marked reduction in mid-story species such as black gum and red maple that are spreading into chestnut oak and pine communities.  Historically, those gums and maples would’ve been confined to wetter sites, but with fire removed from the landscape, those species spread into drier sites and then shade out the pines and oaks that need lots of sunlight to get established.

By reintroducing fire to these systems, we hope to trend back toward oaks and hickories.
To do things the right way, I think we’ll have to do a lot of burning like we’ve done at Piney Grove. We’ve conducted dozens and dozens of burns there, and we’re just now seeing the conditions we’ve been striving to achieve. It’s taken a decade of work, focus and energy to get there.

What are your long-term plans for the fire program?

Sam Lindblom:

One goal is continuing to build our program, and Warm Springs has us well on the way. We conducted the biggest fire we’ve ever done in Virginia — I believe it was the largest Conservancy burn on the East Coast outside of Florida. The scale is important, but so is working on fires with the Forest Service. We’ve got about 18,000 acres in our project area that we’re planning to burn together over the next 5-7 years.

From a longer-term standpoint, if we can demonstrate major ecological gains at Piney Grove and elsewhere, we want to use those as platforms to influence agencies, private landowners and other partners. In the end, it’s public land that has the vast majority of the quality habitat we’ve got left, and the agencies also have the capacity to do fire work.

What is it about fire for you — why is this work rewarding?

Sam Lindblom:

There’s great camaraderie. The work requires fitness, training and discipline, and that attracts certain types of committed people whom I just enjoy being around. Plus, walking through the woods with a drip torch and lighting things on fire — there’re few things in life I enjoy more than that.

But the thing I like most about fire is seeing big changes quickly. Just in the decade that we’ve been doing fire management at Piney Grove, we’ve seen the woodpecker numbers rising. Without fire, that habitat is gone and so are those birds — they'd just blink out.

Sam Lindblom serves as director of land management and fire manager for The Nature Conservancy in Virginia. He returned to the Virginia program in 2007 after a five-year stint with the Conservancy’s global fire initiative, for which he led fire training for staff across the organization and for partners. From 1996-2002, he served as land steward in Virginia, after having started with the Conservancy’s North Carolina program in 1995. Sam graduated from Auburn University with a degree in environmental sciences.