While the red shoulder hawks went about their courtship and nest building activities, a roseate spoonbill soared overhead on a cool January morning. I was in the hydric flatwoods in SW Florida, a moist area filled with tall pines and carpeted with saw palmettos that appeared to have just been trimmed. I was getting a glimpse into the timeline of this ecosystem’s life and into our own awakening as responsible citizen scientists.
It was now January and a fire had occurred here in August. Just before the fire, understory plants such as salt bush, wax myrtle, grape vines and blackberries were beginning to compete with the saw palmettos and dead leaves were thickening the floor. Grasses and wildflowers were being shaded out. The fire that had burned here six months before was called a prescribed burn set by the land managers from the South Florida Water Management District, the primary landowner and one of the partners participating in the Corkscrew Regional Eco-system Watershed or CREW. CREW is the largest intact watershed in SW Florida encompassing 60,000 acres, which contains a 5,000 acre sawgrass marsh, headwaters for the entire watershed, including the Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The CREW Land &Water Trust is the private, non-profit partner that helps to coordinate land acquisition, management and public education and outreach.
The people of CREW have formed a working relationship with the land, so much so, that a paradigm shift is developing. They are beginning to call themselves stewards, a term that more accurately defines their role as caretakers in relationship with the land through conservation and sustainable practices. My appreciation for the work that all members of the Trust do is immense, including their efforts to share their knowledge and recruit more citizen scientists.
We are a part of this landscape; not apart from it. As citizen scientists, we can focus our interaction through observation and hands on learning. Through the CREW Trust’s education programs, citizens are being called to participate in these fires so that they too can witness the transformative properties of fire and learn how to conserve and sustain the Florida landscape. On this day I was reminded that this ecosystem evolved with fire and that we need to live with fire if we are to maintain healthy plant and animal life. Fire has always been a part of this environment, having transformative powers on the local landscape. Burning allows the carbon and other nutrients bound up in the over growth and leaf litter to be released back into the soil, controls insect pests and diseases, and improves the quality and quantity of forage plants. Within this stand of pine forest, the hope was that the burn would allow grasslands to remain open at the edge of older pines perhaps creating suitable habitat for the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker.
Setting a burn every one - two years would also create a habitat favorable for ground foraging birds, while a three - five year burn will encourage understory plants suitable for turkey and deer. In another area the decision to allow the pines to develop into a hardwood hammock was evidenced by the emerging smaller oaks and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker sampling them all. This succession into a hardwood hammock will bring another diversity of species, contributing to the variety of habitats that evolved with this land.
I saw that this activity is both a science and an art form. Land stewardship involves reading the land and making decisions about the succession timeline. The variables for determining when and where a fire needs to be set are many. They consider the time of year, every detail about the weather, plants and animals, as well as educating partners in the burn, which can be many volunteers. Safety is always on their minds. Wait too long for a prescribed burn and the resulting wildfire could be catastrophic, burning so hot as to wipe out the forest entirely and threaten homes. The demonstration burn this day was a small one set against the oncoming wind referred to as a back burn. This patch of palmettos and cabbage palms had been overrun by the understory plants and leaf litter. Within just a few minutes after setting the fire the brush was gone and green still remained on the tips of the palms. With the passage of time, I will report on the wonders that I find there.