Fire as a Critical Tool
The FWS has long recognized fire as an effective tool for shaping ecosystem structure and function. Native Americans, pioneer agriculturalists, and wildlife biologists have used prescribed burns to manage wildlife and plants. Without fire to periodically cleanse dead and overgrown vegetation and recycle nutrients back into the soil, there could be no native tallgrass prairie, no duck-laden wetlands, no lodgepole pine or jack pine forests, and no productive fields of medicinal wildflowers. The populations of many animal species would dwindle as the lush mosaic of feeding, mating, and nesting areas was diminished by lack of fire.
The roots of fire management in the FWS are interwoven with early wildlife management in the Southeast. Wildlife biologist Herbert L. Stoddard first discovered a beneficial relationship between fire and wildlife while studying quail (Stoddard 1925). After biologists became aware of the connection between fire and wildlife, they ignited a prescribed burn in 1927 along the Gulf Coast, on what became St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. In 1933, naturalist Aldo Leopold reinforced the concept of using fire to manage wildlife habitat when he identified "the axe, the match, the cow, the plow, and the gun" as the five critical tools for game management (Leopold 1933). Thus, fire became recognized as a critical tool for managing national wildlife refuges.
Even during the era of aggressive Federal fire suppression, starting in the 1930s and 1940s, refuge managers took the long view by continuing to burn. Through this quiet confidence in science and Mother Nature, trees and brush on many refuge lands were regularly thinned, while vegetation accumulated in areas where fire was excluded. This foresight is carried on today in the agency's continuing use of fire to maintain the desired condition of its lands.