Prescribed burn associations and ecosystem restoration through the application of periodic fire at landscape scales
Woody plant expansion (WPE) is a phenomenon that is occurring in many fire adapted grassland and savanna ecosystems. Fire suppression policies during the last 100 to 200 years have been a primary driver of WPE and elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations appears to be accelerating this trend. To maintain open grasslands and savannas and the associated biodiversity in the face of higher CO2 levels, it is critical to reestablish periodic fire as an ecological driver at landscape scales. However, due to legal liabilities for fires that may burn out of control and negative peer perspectives about to deliberate ignition of fire there is substantial resistance among private landowners to use fire as a woody plant management tool. The question addressed in this paper is: What effects does the creation of prescribed burn associations have on the application of prescribed fire by private landowners across landscapes that exceed the scale of their individual properties? The research results are based on landowners survey data in Texas, data from prescribed burn associations throughout the Great Plains, and data derived from a search of state statutes and state appellate case law in the Westlaw legal database.
Prescribed burn associations reduce liability risk by creating peer-to-peer learning opportunities; adequate labor and fire management equipment on burn days; and increased access to fire-related liability insurance. The safe use of fire by members of these associations has also led to approval by some county commissioners to apply fire under burn-band conditions, which is often when fires are most effective in causing woody plant mortality. Critically, by requiring group participation by landowners in applying fire, they also build social capital among neighboring landowners, which leads to increased land management cooperation at larger scales. The success of prescribed burn associations in Texas has resulted in the formation of similar organizations in states to the north, which has led to an increase in the area of land burned annually in those states. Finally, the establishment and successful operations of such organizations have the potential to change legal liability laws from simple negligence to gross negligence, which will further reduce barriers to the application of prescribed fire.