Smokey Bear is recognized worldwide. Created in 1944, he stars in America’s longest public service ad campaign. Given his rockstar image (protected by federal law, no less), many of us have absorbed his catchphrase: “Remember . . . Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.” Well, that was the version I grew up with. For the past 20 years, it’s been “Only YOU Can Prevent Wildfires.”
If you are of a certain age, you tend to think of wildfires as a bad thing. For people, they can endanger lives and property. For nature, the story is more complex. Wildfires can provide positive ecological benefits.
At Cuyahoga Valley National Park, wildland firefighters conducted two “prescribed burns” this spring. This means we burned the land on purpose — a prescription for better health. This sparked a variety of questions on social media. How can fire be good?
The reason for the first burn at Terra Vista Natural Study Area was to knock back exotic plants that have been choking an 80-acre section. A thorny ornamental shrub called autumn olive is a big problem here. Replacing the dense green wall with a mix of flowers that bloom at different times of year will be good for pollinators. We know because a team of volunteers has been conducting Ohio’s longest-running butterfly survey at Terra Vista. They started in 1997.
The second burn was at a 13-acre site along Interstate 80 called the Borrow Pit. (Workers “borrowed” dirt and rock while building the original I-80 bridge over Cuyahoga Valley.) Here, fire is being used to control both native and non-native trees and shrubs. Hawthorn is the most common one. We want to maintain this as grassland meadow because it supports a variety of rare plants. For example, this is the best spot for fringed gentian, a delicate fall beauty.
But what about the baby animals? Ideally, we would have done these burns a little earlier, but we had to wait for the proper conditions. Blame Ohio weather. Fortunately, neither location attracts grown nesting birds which are the main concern. In time, having more native plants will be a boon for generations of wildlife.
I want to close with a silly insider tip. If you want to annoy rangers like myself, compliment us on our “Smokey Bear” flat hats. This might prompt a huffy little civics lesson about how Smokey Bear represents the U.S. Forest Service. That’s part of the Department of Agriculture. We are the National Park Service, which is within the Department of Interior. Our symbol is an arrowhead with a bison. It’s attractive—but it’s no shirtless bear.
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