Prescribed burn at Cypress Pond during the spring 2023 season. Intentional, carefully controlled fires are essential to the natural cultivation of diverse ecosystems. Photo by Caleb Grantham, The Nature Conservancy.
In the majestic deep-green forests and billowing golden grasslands across Illinois, the trills of songbirds sometimes become a duet – accompanied by the soft crackling of fire.
Prescribed fire is one of the most important land management practices in maintaining and restoring healthy landscapes and is used by land managers to reduce hazardous fuels and the risk of destructive wildfires. Intentional, carefully controlled fires are essential to maintain healthy forests, controlling invasive species, and improving access and the appearance of land. Prescribed burns are based on centuries of experience with nature and knowledge gained by Native American tribes, whose practice of traditional burns is deeply embedded in their history and culture.
Embracing that history, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the world’s leading environmental organization, conducted its first prescribed burn in 1962. With biodiversity preservation efforts spanning decades, no other private organization matches TNC’s fire-management capacity, experience or expertise in addressing fire-related challenges for people and nature.
Low- to moderate-intensity fires clear natural debris that otherwise would eventually become fuel for a potentially devastating blaze. Throughout history, lightning strikes and fires managed by Indigenous peoples maintained that delicate balance throughout much of North America.
Today, TNC is working to restore ecological balance through the use of fire by supporting local community and Indigenous leaders, sponsoring innovative fire training opportunities, and helping federal and state agencies transition to healthy controlled burns. Those efforts are having an impact. In Illinois alone, more than 13,000 acres were revived through prescribed fire during the spring of 2022, led by a specially trained staff and volunteers. And the Illinois General Assembly passed a resolution declaring April 2023 as Prescribed Fire Awareness Month, helping raise awareness to the benefits of fire to Illinois’ natural landscape.
A historic number of burns were conducted between November 2020 and April 2021 across 23,000 acres of fields and forests in southern Illinois, including 14,000 acres in and around Shawnee National Forest, protecting this national treasure from potentially devastating wildfire, a possibility that continues to increase with our warming climate.
Controlled burns in the oak-hickory dominated forests of Illinois also clear invasive species, allowing more sunlight to reach the forest floor. With the burn cycle disrupted through decades of fire suppression regulation, the once-thriving oaks on which forest animals depend for their survival have been threatened by invasive takeover.
The benefits of controlled fire in a forest environment also apply to the landscapes for which Illinois is most known: the grassland prairie. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois had 22 million acres of prairie in 1820. Today, less than one tenth of one percent of our prairies remain. The benefits of prescribed burns are nowhere more evident than in the Nachusa Grasslands preserve near Franklin Grove in northern Illinois.
Among those 3,500 acres of protected grasslands, rare Blanding’s turtles dwell alongside 700 native plant species and 180 species of birds, including grasshopper sparrows and dickcissels. Staff and volunteers have contributed hundreds of thousands of hours to restore the prairie – replicating work once done by Indigenous people throughout Illinois – through seed harvesting, monitoring wildlife and controlled burns.
At Nachusa, native birds such as the grasshopper sparrow prefer to nest in short-structured vegetation that emerges after burns, when non-native plants that haven’t adapted to fire disappear while those that have been in the area for millennia resurface as ideal habitat.
As its successful prescribed burns program continues to permeate the Illinois landscape, TNC in Illinois is ensuring that diverse voices are included at all levels. From decision-making for fire management to on-the-ground staff, TNC seeks the expertise of Native Americans and people of color, as well as creating a welcoming and supportive firefighting force. In recent years TNC, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), introduced the Women in Fire Fellowship, aimed at addressing a lack of diversity in firefighting, an industry where women make up less than 5 percent of the workforce. Women in Fire continues to excel in preparing women, trans, and non-binary trainees for success in fire to propel them into positions with the USFS and other fire management agencies. This partnership, in collaboration with USFW and the Shawnee National Forest, provides interdisciplinary training in archeology, hydrology, soils, recreation management and timber harvesting best management practices. In 2022, the Women in Fire fellows in Illinois received experience on 24 prescribed burns in the Midwest, and completion more than a dozen nationally recognized wildland fire training courses. The program has expanded this year, allowing for more opportunities for trainees to get involved and mentor the next generation of fire practitioners.
Cultivating and reviving healthy landscapes remains a fire management priority, but TNC in Illinois also continues to evolve to support the healthy co-existence of people and nature. We are committed to elevating the expertise of Indigenous leaders and fire practitioners, collaborating to create more equitable policy and funding practices, grow and diversify our skilled fire-management workforces, and help communities develop ways to live more safely with wildfire.
In the wisdom of the past, we find the path toward a more balanced future for our natural world.
Tharran Hobson is the southern Illinois program director for The Nature Conservancy in Illinois.