That such insights seem novel testifies to the generally baleful status of anthropogenic fire research. For the fire community, “fire behavior” has a specific meaning: it means fire propagating as a purely natural phenomenon; it means the movement of a zone of combustion across a landscape under the influence of weather, fuels, and terrain. People can use these factors to start fires of their own, or to suppress free-burning flames. But they are not themselves an inextricable component of such a model. The point of fire behavior research is to study pure – that is, “natural” – fire. If people start and stop fire, they turn fire science into fire technology. The argument that removing people is the aberration, not only of historical geography but of fire theory, is an idea too radical for most practitioners or funding agencies to contemplate. It violates equally their sense of wildland and of science. Most researchers would thus place the Ozarks as an outlier.
Yet it is possible to stand this perception on its head, to proclaim that inhabited places like the Ozarks are the norm and that wildlands are the exception, not only as places but as theoretical models. Yellowstone or Yosemite can choose to ignore the anthropogenic fires that preceded the park’s establishment, and can dismiss the century-long removal of fire by people as an aberration, and pretend that humanity’s only role now is to assist in regenerating an order in which people will ultimately stand aside. The Ozarks can’t, and by forcing a recasting of fire behavior and fire history around a human presence, they propose a theory of fire’s presence that makes the anthropogenic landscape the vital center and the others as derivative outliers.
Over the past century the Ozarks have experienced another cycle of migration, another reformation of landscapes, and another long-wave cycle of fire. Neither emigration nor immigration is as complete as those of the 19th century, and the emergent landscape is fragmented, with large patches still mired in the old order. But the long-rhythm of burning is unmistakable. From 1581-1700, the mean fire interval in the southeast Missouri Ozarks was 15.8 years; from 1700-1820, 8.9 years; for 1820-1940, 3.7 years; but since 1940 it extends to 715 years. Across some 500 years the landscape for burning had blossomed and then disappeared.[i]
By the 1920s the Ozarks were breaking down, and they crashed during the drought and Depression of the 1930s. Once the orgy of cutting passed, and its slash had burned, fires thinned, and those that survived weakened, due to the sheer accumulation of the human presence. There wasn’t enough to burn in the old way. Then people began decamping, lands fell into tax delinquency, and the flinty stubbornness of Ozark political culture cracked. The removal of the human hand created a new frontier, as land changed ownership or acquired a new cover, or both. Missouri came late to conservation but it came with hard-wrought compromises that bequeathed an institutional steadiness.
Between 1929 and 1933 the General Assembly authorized the federal purchase of forest land under the Clarke-McNary Act. Soon the U.S. Forest Service acquired 1.3 million acres to make the Mark Twain National Forest. The election of 1936 established a Missouri Conservation Commission, later renamed the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), which oversaw forestry, fish and wildlife, and began acquiring lands of its own, apart from state parks. Decade by decade, slower than activists wished, but with a steady if oft-spasmodic tread, the institutional apparatus for state-sponsored conservation matured. In the 1960s the National Park Service entered seriously into the consortium with the Ozarks National Scenic Riverways. In 1976 and again in 1984 voters approved a sales tax devoted to conservation programs. By 2000, over 13% of Missouri, capturing all the critical conservation elements, were lodged in protected public landscapes.[ii]
Thoughtful observers had long agreed, however, that genuine conservation could only follow from grassroots popular support, not elite control over bureaus. The private sector controlled most of the land and would determine the grand mosaic of Missouri habitats. A spectacular fusion of private ownership and public service commenced when Leo Drey, beginning in 1951, began developing the immense Pioneer Forest. Eventually his holdings grew to 160,000 acres, all dedicated to sustainable forestry through selective cutting and intimate knowledge of its intricate mosaic of sites. That experiment helped establish a pattern, if sometimes grudging, of cooperation between private and public sectors. Subsequently, donated land, private reserves (such as those belonging to The Nature Conservancy), and conservation easements have expanded the realm of rehabilitated hills.[iii]
Together they formed a mixed economy of ownership, some private, some state, some federal; but all were working landscapes. The national forests housed CCC camps, which set about stabilizing soils, replanting hillsides, and stopping fires. Peck Ranch, in particular, became a showcase; and when oak decline threatened to spread from Arkansas, the MDC was willing to log off 17 million board feet to halt it in its tracks. MDC brought back the turkey, and even exported its thriving flocks to a dozen other states. But the most potent measure was fire control. The MDC made fire protection a foundational program, assuming that ending the biota-stressing flames would allow the land to recover. Pioneer Forest banned burning of all sorts.
In the early years locals often resented the new order: they regarded fire towers darkly as prison watchtowers, and told of soaking a rope in kerosene, setting it afire, and dragging it behind a galloping horse through the woods. Federal foresters were so exasperated that they arranged for anthropologists to study the local residents as one might Inuit or Trobriand Islanders. But the tide had turned, and that creaky pioneer culture could no more hold its own ebb in place than Knut could stand against the sea’s advance. The last blast of fire came in the spring of 1953 when an insurgent outbreak of fire affected an estimated 80% of the Missouri Ozarks. Thereafter fires stayed on private lands, or if they strayed onto the public estate were quickly rounded up. In 1967 Missouri at last banned open range grazing. That reduced the primary motive for continued folk burning to vandalism, a kind of flaming graffiti, unmoored from its economic piers. The old regime collapsed.
[i] See E.R. McMurry et al, “Initial effects of prescribed burning and thinning on plant communities in the southeast Missouri Ozarks,” See E.R. McMurry et al, “Initial effects of prescribed burning and thinning on plant communities in the southeast Missouri Ozarks,” Proceedings of the 15th Central Hardwood Forest Conference, U.S. Forest Service e-GTR-SRS-101 (2006), p. 241. The most comprehensive summary of contemporary fire statistics is Steve Westin, “Wildfire in Missouri” (Missouri Department of Conservation, 1992).
[ii] Details of conservation history from Flader, “History of Missouri Forests and Forest Conservation.”
[iii] See Susan Flader, “Missouri’s Pioneer in Sustainable Forestry,” Forest History Today (Spring/Fall 2004), pp. 2-15.