Op Ed- Prescribed Fire and the Shawnee National Forest

By Myke Luurtsema
In May 15, 2018

Prescribed Fire and the Shawnee


By John B. Wallace


The 2018 Illinois Prescribed Fire Council Winter Symposium was eye opening.  As a skeptic, I had hoped to gather more information on a topic of which data was lacking.  I expected an agenda laced with pro fire propaganda but afterwards was frankly motivated to delve head first into this topic, much more thoroughly than I had planned.  Sadly, the public land management professionals and academicians giving presentations displayed a familiar arrogance by flippantly dismissing public sentiment, by expressing an extreme management outlook and by ultimately showing disdain for environmental law.  A more appropriate title for the symposium should have been, Prescribed Fire and Why We Love it; Burning More by Identifying and Eliminating Barriers.  


The fire promoters cited numerous literary works to support their contention that pre-settlement forest conditions in southern Illinois were open and savannah like due to extensive burning by Native Americans.  They claim that every woodland ecosystem needs to be regularly burned on one to five year intervals to maintain the oak/hickory component found in our forests and to keep out the unwanted maple, beech, lindens and others.  


I remember hearing a similar perspective expressed by professional land managers of the 1980s and 90s, that to maintain our oaks and hickories, our public forests needed to be clearcut, creating a public outcry that eventually stopped logging on public land in the region, altogether.  Upon further observation, previously clearcut stands now tend to be dominated more by the “undesirable” young maple, tulip poplar and sycamores that the foresters at the time, actually claimed should have been suppressed by the practice. Oaks and hickories that were logged off are simply less concentrated today than prior to logging.  


Even though prescribed fire on public land has increased dramatically in the last ten years, the symposium professionals made it clear that the modern day fire frequency needs to be increased even more so, citing numerous fire frequency studies.  The presenters and members of the audience expressed more of a burning love than a scientific basis to substantiate their preferred management prescription. While I have struggled to find data in support of the conclusion that natives extensively burned the forests of the unglaciated Shawnee Hills and Ozark Plateau natural divisions, or the area that now contains the Shawnee National Forest, I compiled the references provided to conduct a more thorough review.

Image from USFS


Burning Data

Of the citations provided in support of professional assertions that the forest needs more prescribed fire to return to and maintain the pre-settlement conditions created by native peoples in the Shawnee region, three documents clearly refer to fire intervals and conditions that were initiated and maintained by white settlers, well after native inhabitants were removed from the landscape.1,2,3  Incredibly, these publications document the existence of fires burning in the region as regularly as annual fires.  One study, Draiunage and Agricultural Impacts on Fire Frequency… (Nelson),determined a mean or average fire interval every 1.75 years from 1895-1965.1 In the publication, Family of the Hills: An Oral History…(Krause), provides a local account that refers to the annual burning across the landscape in 1930 that contributed to conditions on the land that became known as the “wastelands.” These conditions lead to the issuance of a 1931 U.S. Forest Service Preliminary Report on the formation of what was then proposed as two national forests in southern Illinois.  Along with logging and farming, this practice led to the determination that, “[o]ver 40% of the land was classified as severely eroded or destroyed.”2


Fire Prevention in Illinois Forests (Miller), is a forester’s account of the burned lands in Union, Jackson, Saline and Pope counties in 1920.  The author described the forests as being so burned over, “until the ground was as bare as a floor.” While he could not prove his suspicions he also suspected a depletion of soil nutrient conditions.  “That there is a reduction in fertility is certainly evidenced by the retrogression in vegetative cover and in forest type which takes place on burned lands, a fact familiar to every ecologist.”3


The author of the Illinois Natural History Survey bulletin referenced above documented damaged mature timber from the fires and concluded that the fires increased soil erosion. “Repeated burning changes the physical properties of the soil, and by laying it bare and reducing its humus content makes it much more liable to washing and erosion.”3


The Occurrence of Prairie and Forest Fires… (McClain) citation documented numerous presettlement fires in Illinois, but after a thorough reading, only one reference of the fires discussed in the text was located within a county that contains some of the present day Shawnee National Forest.4  Most of the fires documented in the state were located in the glaciated majority of the state, well outside of the natural divisions that make up the Shawnee National Forest.  The north eastern boundary of the Shawnee Hills transects through southern Gallatin County. The majority of the county is in the Wabash Border Natural Division, outside of the present the national forest boundary. A reference to three “prairie fires” located in that county was documented by a white settler on an October day in 1819.  It is unknown if the fires were set by natives or by the early settlers inhabiting the region. Another reference to a fire in the same County in 1822 is listed in a table attached to the paper from a 1919 written account. Beyond that the study contains no details about the fire, whatsoever.4   


Fire History of a Post Oak Woodland in Hamilton County, Illinois (Ebinger), was yet another publication cited to support fire.5  This study revolved around a post oak flatwoods community in a county located in the Southern Till Plain of Illinois, well outside and north of the present boundary of the national forest. The Southern Till Plain Natural Division is noted more for what was once dominated by tall grass prairies and scattered oak savannahs, rather than of mixed hardwood forests.5  No post oak flatwood communities have been described in the unglaciated portion of southern Illinois.    


One reference provided, Fire Chronology and Windstorm Effects… (Jones), specific details to document the occurrence of presettlement forest fires at a rare southern Illinois shortleaf pine and oak community known as LaRue Pine Hills Ecological Area on the Shawnee6.  The state endangered pines are only found naturally occurring at two locations in the state, atop limestone bluffs at Pine Hills and the other at a similarly xeric site just outside the Shawnee boundary. Both sites are located on the west side of the state in the hills just east of the Mississippi River floodplain. The study was carried out on the disjunct Larue Pine Hills community and documents the years that both presettlement and post settlement fires took place.  The study only documented six presettlement fire years which also corresponded with known drought conditions at this rocky and dry outcropping on the forest. Fires intervals at the site increased dramatically after settlement.6


In the reference provided, Comp;arison of Preswettlement, Second Growth and Old Growth Forests… (Frailisch), relied on “Witness tree data from the General Land Office (GLO)1806 – 1807 Survey records,” to reconstruct presettlement forest community data and landscape pattern in the Shawnee Hills natural division of southern Illinois.7  I am unsure how the GLO data was compiled and how the authors extrapolated that information to reconstruct the presettlement forest conditions of the Shawnee, much less determine the frequency of fires that had occurred prior to the surveys. I was unable to download the study for a more thorough review of the study.  


Another study cited, Predicting Fire Frequency with Chemistry and Climate (Guyette), is not specific to the state or the unglaciated Shawnee Hills and Ozark region of southern Illinois8. The publication relies more on general North American fire data to develop an equation for estimating historical fires.  The equation referred to as the “Physical Chemical Fire Frequency Model, ” is developed from theories, physical chemistry and ecosystem ecology, as well.8


Burning Analysis

While it is clear, American Indians resided on and extensively burned the great plains, which helped to maintain open prairies and open savannah woodlands that once dominated the landscape of the state, it is not at all as clear that the Shawnee Hills and the Ozark Plateau in southern Illinois were so thoroughly torched.  In fact, informal discussions with archaeologists on this subject have resulted in an understanding that the woodland natives of the region were much more nomadic and in lower concentrations than their plains counterparts. These scientists have indicated that archaeological evidence of extensive burning in this part of southern Illinois either does not exist or is at least not definitive.  It also makes sense that nomadic groups of foragers (hunter/gatherers) would have had less time to devote to burning and less of a commitment to the area since they most often would not remain in one locale. The steep topography and less productive soils of southernmost Illinois compared to those found in the glaciated remainder of the state would lend one to surmise that game and herbivorous food sources were not as plentiful in this region, either, thereby limiting prehistoric human development, as well.  This part of Illinois receives more annual rainfall (approximately 48″ per year) than the remainder of the state, which would have likely limited the spread of any purposely set, accidental or naturally occurring fires.


That said, it also seems obvious that fire likely played a role in maintaining some sandstone and limestone glades and barrens ecosystems in the region, but these communities contain rockier and drier, xeric conditions than the majority of the Shawnee.  This is evidenced by the unique drought tolerant and shade intolerant remnant plant communities found at some of these areas. Their hilltop exposure makes them more susceptible to lighting strikes and combined with their naturally drier conditions makes the occurrence of natural fire and/or the spreading of human started fires more likely than in other locales.  There is evidence that native inhabitants built more permanent structures in the form of rock walls named stone forts (surmised to be of a defensive nature in the past but are now believed to have served more of a ceremonial purpose) on certain bluff tops. Natives also developed rock art on or in the proximity of a few of the stone fort sites in the region. These manipulated places indicate that humans likely remained in the locales at some point in time, thus increasing the probability that fires could have escaped or periodic burning may have been practiced by native inhabitants at those locations.  


Burning Professionals

Now that I have sat through presentations by professional land managers, read through some of their “proof” that ours is a fire maintained landscape, and have compared burned and unburned forest stands on the Shawnee myself, I am convinced that the professionals claim of a

need to burn and to establish a one to five year fire rotation schedule on the Shawnee is misguided at best and merely self serving at worst.


One symposium presenter, the Forest Service Regional Ecologist, remarked that you need “flame throwers,” to get most eastern forests to burn until a regular fire regime is implemented. Even though eastern forests don’t readily burn without extensive help, another presenter conversely highlighted a southern wildfire protection plan for southern Illinois.  The coordinator of the local Prescribed Burn Association bragged about his willingness to shamelessly pitch fire as a prescription for nearly every land management ill and as therapy for treating any angst suffered by landowners, was yet another warning sign that something is amiss.


Follow that with a talk from the Shawnee National Forest’s Fire Management Officer, Scott Crist, who implied that he would like to see the entire 286,000 acre forest burned.  He explained his agency’s intention to burn more than 10,000 acres this year and expressed his hopes that soon 2,500 acres could be burned in just one day. It should not be a surprise to have also heard another key component to the success in reaching his burning desires on the forest is to bring in revenue dollars from timber sales.  Cash flow influx tends to have greater influence on modern day land managers than science based stewardship. Then Mr. Crist referred to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as the main “hurdle” to accomplishing his management goals. When the Fire Management Officer referred to NEPA as a “four letter word,” initiating verbal outbursts of approval from many in the room, this author’s ire was awakened.


NEPA has suffered numerous setbacks as of late and will likely suffer more, especially considering the present political climate.  The Act was signed into law by President Nixon (not necessarily considered a friend to the environment) in 1970 to provide a national policy to protect the environment and the welfare of people in this country.  It is painfully obvious why Mr. Crist is so resentful of the law. I had suspicions about prescribed burning but the comments made by this official about one of the most significant environmental laws in the U.S., highlights just how reckless his management hopes truly are.  Such comments from a federal employee are simply inexcusable, much less coming from an individual with such influence on federal land management. NEPA was designed to rein in such arrogant public servants and has thankfully served to limit their haphazard management approaches in the past.  


Science is not incomplete, yet the professionals promoting fire claim to have the scientific facts to back their actions. However, it is clear and some of the same professionals agree that their information is incomplete.  I truly do not understand all I should about the Physical Chemical Fire Frequency Model, nor do I have all the information from the early 1800s GLO land surveys. However, the other supporting studies almost certainly place into question the presettlement fire models of the pro-fire professionals.  Any presettlement fires that were documented in the unglaciated southernmost Illinois are isolated and provide scant proof of anything other than they only happened (if they actually did occur elsewhere) during periods of extreme drought.


A study on Indian-Set Fires in Forests of the Northeastern United States (Russell), not provided by nor challenged by symposium presenters supports this finding, as well.9  “It is concluded that frequent use of fires by the Indians to burn the forests was probably at most a local occurrence.”9


Burning Conclusion

The more reliable historical documentation on fire occurrence is the post-settlement fires that occurred on what seems to be a nearly annual level. I’m sure that some silviculturists would argue that we still need to manage for those conditions, as that is how we achieved the dominance of oaks and hickories.  On the contrary, our present forests evolved from those undesirable “wasteland,” conditions.3  A more effective argument against burning would be that the formation of the national forest resulted in successfully rescuing the land from the abusive farming, grazing, logging and burning practices when there was little or no oak recruitment and the ground was laid, “bare as a floor.”3   It was under those very conditions when much of the land was officially considered to be, “severely eroded or destroyed.”2


Our forests have recovered from the abusive management practices of the past.  While nature is resilient, that is not a good reason to strive for a return to the past and repeat the widespread practices (mistakes) that depleted many of the forests’ natural attributes, in the first place.


Frankly, we will never be able to return the forest to its pre-settlement conditions.  Too many components have been lost. No longer do we have the dominant American Elm or American Chestnut trees.  How can we have presettlement forest conditions when we no longer have the passenger pigeon, elk or woodland bison impacts on the land?  That is just a few of the species that have been lost. Sadly, we will never know how the missing components affected the overall landscape.  Now, unlike presettlement conditions, we have a myriad of non-native invasive species overrunning or poised to invade many of our natural communities.  The same fire proponents will argue that fire suppresses the invasives. Non-natives thrive on disturbance, however, and fires create disturbance! Since fires and logging open the forest canopy to more sunlight and clear the forest floor of competition, leaf litter and humus, even more control measures will have to be employed to keep the invasives in check.  


It is also questionable that maples are invading our oak/hickory forests just due to the absence of fire or artificial disturbances created from logging.  They are invading portions of the forest where they were not historically documented primarily because there is an ample seed source now and maple seedlings just grow faster than their oak and hickory counterparts.  Settlers planted maples near their home sites and the Shawnee contains hundreds of abandoned home sites. Nearly all old or abandoned home sites in the region contain old maple trees. It would make sense as the maples would have provided their homes with deep shade (as maple foliage is more dense) faster than oaks for cooling in the summer and provided sugar for the settlers (in the form of maple sugar/syrup) in late winter. Many abandoned home sites are found along ridges, bluffs and hilltops in the forest.  As mature maples on these higher elevations produced seeds, wind and water has helped to naturally disburse the seeds to other forest locations.


Curiously, the more land managers burn, the more susceptible the forest is to future burning and even to accidental wildfires.  There is one clear benefit from the professionals’ plans to burn more and that is the job security that they insure for themselves, for other fire proponents and for the land managers in the future.


Burning Literature Cited

  1.  Drainage and agriculture impacts on fire frequency in a southern Illinois forested bottomland (USDA FS, 2008) Southern Research Sta., J.L. Nelson et al.
  2.  Family of the Hills: An Oral History of Odie and Florence Bridgeman, Union Co. IL (USDA FS 1985, p. 31), B.J. Krause.
  3.  Fire Prevention in Illinois Forests (INHS 1920), R.B. Miller.
  4.  The Occurrence of Prairie and Forest Fires in Illinois and Other Midwestern States, 1679 to 1854 (Erigenia 1994, pp.79-90),W.E McClain and S.L. Elzinga.
  5.  Fire History of a Post Oak Woodland in Hamilton County, Illinois (INHS 2010) , J.E. Ebinger, W.E. McClain, et al.
  6.  Fire Chronology and Windstorm Effects on Persistence of a Disjunct Oak-Shortleaf Pine Community (2010), M.D. Jones & M.L. Bowles.
  7.  Comparison of Presettlement, Second-Growth and Old-Growth Forests on Six Site Types in the Illinois Shawnee Hills (The American Midland Naturalist 1991, pp. 294-309), J. Frailisch, et al.
  8.  Predicting Fire Frequency with Chemistry and Climate (2012), Guyette, Staumbaugh, et al.
  9. 9.  Indian-Set Fires in the Forests of the Northeastern United States (Ecology 1983, pp. 78-88), E.W.B. Russell.


  1. Thanks for the excellent analysis, John. This is going to be useful in future comments regarding FS projects.