In December, I visited Orlando, FL and the nearby Disney Wilderness Preserve for the Association for Fire Ecology’s Fire Congress and a prescribed burn organized by the Student Association for Fire Ecology and The Nature Conservancy. I was eager to attend these fire events in Orlando, not because of Disney World and warm weather (though these were perks!), but because I was excited to talk about and learn about fire in the state that is arguably the birthplace of fire ecology. Because the West so frequently dominates the national discussion on fire, many people are surprised to learn that not only does Florida burn, but that the first fire ecology conference, in 1962, was held at Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee. I’d heard about Florida’s fire-maintained longleaf pine savannas, but I’d never seen one, and I was eager to learn a new fire story. Furthermore, The Nature Conservancy has been a major player in using fire as a restoration tool since those early days of fire ecology, so I’m always excited to learn more about their work.
I saw my first longleaf pine savannas just before I set one on fire, and that first day was concerned more with burning than natural history. But the next day, wind conditions made burning a no-go, so we took a tour of the preserve and witnessed the beauty of a native Florida longleaf pine savanna. The Disney Wilderness Preserve is a wonder of fire-based restoration ecology. The preserve was established in 1992 through an agreement with the Walt Disney Company, The Nature Conservancy, and other organizations and agencies. The Federal Clean Water Act and Florida’s Henderson Act require that any project that destroys wetlands compensate for that action with mitigation efforts. Often this is done by creating small, artificial wetlands near the project site, which don’t work nearly as well as the large, continuous natural wetlands that have been fragmented and destroyed. So in the late 80-early 90s, when Disney was planning to build Animal Kingdom and other expansions and about to destroy large tracts of wetland to do so, they took a different path: instead of many small artificial wetlands, they purchased 8,500 acres of a property in Kissimmee, Florida, called Walker Ranch. Disney’s agreement with TNC transferred ownership and management to the Nature Conservancy. Three-thousand additional acres were added later. You can read an in-depth history of the Preserve here.
The relative benefits of a single large or several small reserves has been long debated in conservation biology, but in this case there is little question that the 11,500 acre Disney Wilderness Preserve is a better functioning ecosystem than a series of small, artificial wetlands would have been. And one of the benefits is the ability to use fire to manage the huge portions of the reserve that are not wetlands, including the native longleaf pine savannas and Florida scrub. The longleaf pine savannas of the Preserve have now been fully restored using frequent prescribed fire by The Nature Conservancy team.
Following restoration, it now resembles what much of Florida likely looked like hundreds of years ago, before the first Europeans came to Florida, before the land was fragmented and transformed into golf courses and retirement villages and massive theme parks featuring fake trees of life and animatronic animals.
Learning about the active history of fire in Florida can be surprising, given the state’s swampy weather much of the year. But Florida has one of the highest rates of lightning strikes in the world, and all that water makes the plants very happy. They grow quickly. Those plants dry out during a brief dry season in early spring and are ready fuels when thunderstorms come again later in the spring. In the sweet spot after the season’s first lightning strikes have begun and before the new rains soak the fuels again, fires once burned vast areas of land in Florida, with these longleaf pine savannas burning every few years, a fire interval much shorter than we see in even the “frequent fire” mixed conifer forests of the West. Today at the Disney Wilderness Preserve, the Nature Conservancy burns the land every few years, mostly during the spring, to mimic this natural frequency.
On the tour, we ride in a massive green buggy on the preserve’s sandy dirt roads. All around us, lovely longleaf pines stand tall enmeshed in a low understory of palmetto. It feels like we’re driving around an African savanna, though the lone mammal we spot is the black lab pup that headed out with us that morning. Panthers have been known to cross this landscape, though, and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker thrives in the longleaf pine savanna. Our guide shows us the woodpecker boxes that the preserve staff has used to help reintroduce the bird here. Aside from the restored longleaf pine system, we also see Florida scrub (burned on a longer interval than the pine savanna), where we spot the state’s only endemic bird, the Florida scrub jay. One of our last stops is a small platform on the edge of a wetland, where we spot a congregation of baby alligators.
Our guides tell us that their preserve is so well managed using fire that when a wildfire happens today, they need to do very little to manage it. The preserve has excellent fire breaks, and the vast majority of the land has burned within the past few years, keeping fuel loads low. In the buggy, I ask our guides a question they get a lot: if there’s so much lightning in Florida, and it’s so easy to manage lightning fires now that the land has been restored, why do they continue to do prescribed fires? Why not let nature do the job now?
The answer is this: it won’t work. The lightning may still be there, but too few lightning strikes will hit the preserve to burn this area frequently enough to mimic the historical fire regime. Before this land was developed, a single lightning strike could start a fire that covered thousands of acres. The land of the Disney Wilderness Preserve could burn from a fire started well outside its modern boundary. But there is so little continuous land now. Even when it’s possible for fire to spread across the land as it is now, it’s not preferable to let them do so–there are neighborhoods and roads and theme parks covering much of that land. (Florida does sometimes see large wildfires on the scale of what we see out west–most famously the 1998 wildfires, which burned over 474,000 acres, so fire can carry under extreme conditions.) So the Disney Preserve sets the fires.
This is a really terrific example of what restoration can be–restoration at its best is not about perfectly recreating a long lost history. It’s about building healthy, resilient ecosystems that consider history, present, and future. It’s hands on. It considers the neighbors–burning on the best days for smoke management–but it still takes bold action. (An aside: at the conference, other Florida land managers told us that the neighbors are very interested in their prescribed burns–they’ll stop by in golf carts and watch the fun.)
There are places in the West, too, that are models of restoration using prescribed fire. Sequoia National Park is one such place. But at the same time, the fire stories of the West and the Southeast developed differently. There are larger stretches of public land in the West, while the Southeast is more of a patchwork of private land. Prescribed fire has enjoyed a greater degree of public awareness in the Southeast. The West has to deal with large wildfires more often. In California, our Mediterranean climate gives us a much larger proportion of the year without water.
Restoration happens on local landscapes, and we have to know our local fire stories to do it. But sometimes taking a trip and learning a new fire story helps to think about our home landscapes in new ways.