In the Columbus area, smoke can get in your eyes at times. Stephen Hudson concedes that.
But the lead forester with Fort Benning's Land Management Branch stresses that his office isn't the only entity setting prescribed burns in the Southeast, sometimes leading to hazy, choking air in and around the city.
Hudson, who's been with the branch eight years, points to a National Geophysical Data Center satellite printout showing several dozen fires and plumes of smoke across Georgia and neighboring states on a particular March day.
"On the 15th of March, the Georgia Forestry Commission issued 887 burn permits for around 27,000 acres," he said. "That same day, we conducted a burn on 320 acres. ... So we're not the only ones."
Still, Hudson acknowledges he does take heat from the community concerning the lung-straining smoke that permeates the air from time to time. And that acrid odor can occasionally come from his crews' activities.
"Even the weatherman can't always predict the weather, much less wind direction two or three days in advance. And weather conditions change throughout the day," he said of the prescribed burns, which typically are scheduled when winds are expected to take smoke away from Columbus.
It's a tall order to accomplish the burns and manage activities that might impact timber on the 180,000-acre military installation.
The Land Management Branch calculates that from 1985 to 2013 it has performed prescribed burns on more than 740,000 acres of the post's property -- some areas more than once. It also has managed more than 4,000 wildfires over that period.
The mission is to keep those wildfires down, make sure potentially explosive training stays on schedule, and nurture plant and wildlife species such as the longleaf pine and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
The Land Management Branch falls under Fort Benning's Environmental Management Division within the post's Directorate of Public Works.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited Hudson, 35, a native of Fayette, Ala., recently to discuss his job, his office's duties and the challenges he faces. This interview has been edited a bit for length and clarity, with an expanded version at www.ledger-enquirer.com.
First off, where did the longleaf pine grow historically?
From Virginia to Texas. Along the coast and then inland. It's based on soils and weather conditions for that species.
Is it federally protected?
It's not. There has been a federal initiative for restoration of this system. It once spanned 90 million acres. (It's down to) 3 or 4 million acres. That's the result of logging practices, a lot of development things back in the '20s and '30s. You've probably seen pictures of those drastic clear cuts for miles and miles ... Once upon a time the boardwalk at Coney Island was made of longleaf pine. So a lot of the timber that was out here was shipped up north for buildings, structures and bridges. So that, coupled with agriculture, cotton farms and all of that, took them away.
How about here on Fort Benning?
We've got mixed pine, some longleaf component, of around 26,000 acres. Since 1988, we've planted almost 18 million longleaf seedlings on approximately 25,000 acres ... It's all fire driven, it's fire dependent, which is a great match for the training mission here at Fort Benning.
What do you mean when you say fire dependent?
It's a fire dependent ecosystem, which means the wildlife species, the understory plants, vegetation, it all thrives with active prescribed burning. You can think of a fire coming through and kind of cleaning the forest. So it lets a lot of light hit the understory, hit the forest floor, and these plants thrive on that. There are a lot of ancillary wildlife species, to include threatened and endangered species, game and non-game wildlife.
What are examples of endangered species?
Most notably here at Fort Benning is the red-cockaded woodpecker. It prefers old, open part-light forest, excavated cavities and old trees, 80, 90, 100 year-plus trees. It allows enough hardwood to sap wood ratio for that bird to excavate a cavity and make its home.
Is your job about protecting trees?
Trees and habitat. As far as when we're burning or soldiers are training out here, there are signs and trees that are painted a certain color to identify this is a RCW (red-cockaded woodpecker) habitat. So when we're burning and training we know it's there. As far as burning goes, we set the ignition right at the base of that tree and it moves away from it instead of going into it.
What other types of wildlife species are out here?
We have gopher tortoise; he's not endangered, he's threatened right now. I don't know if it's threatened or endangered, but there's the pitcher plant that thrives on a fire system. It's actually an insect-catching plant.
What is the normal period for prescribed burns on post?
Generally from December to the end of May most of our understory burning is done, mainly because conditions are favorable to do maintenance burns in the forests. It's cooler, conditions are more favorable, especially as far as smoke management is concerned. We get more consistent winds and the air quality is better ... We have cold fronts coming in so the winds are more predictable. With summertime patterns, we kind of get in this lull of not much wind at all. It's got a strong easterly component and it's not very reliable; it shifts a lot.
How long has the post been doing the prescribed burns?
Prior to 1985, there were approximately 7,000 acres burned annually. Starting in 1992, we really ramped up prescribed burning, so it's approximately 38,000 acres a year we prescribe burn. As a result, our wildfires have gone from over 500 annually to less than 100.
That protects species, but also keeps dangerous wildfires down?
Sure, absolutely. It goes into smoke management for our neighbors. It goes into asset protection for the assets on the installation. It also goes to safety for everybody out here.
Can you guarantee we won't have any raging wildfire like they've had out in the West?
We have the entire installation on a two- and three-year burn cycle, so we are reducing or eliminating those fuels.
But you always want to knock on wood when you say that?
Absolutely. And weather plays a lot into that, including prolonged periods of drought. However, when we need to go out and control that wildfire, it's easier to do (because of the burn program). It's safer for personnel and it's easier to manage, rather than it being raging like you see out west.
Does lightning cause some of the fires?
It does happen. Typically, we'll have a storm come through, lightning hits a tree, the tree falls down on a power line, and the power line causes it. But most of our fires out here are caused by incendiary devices from training ... It's a combination of anything, really. It could be a tracer round from ammunition, a smoke grenade, a flare.
Are your guys on call just in case?
We're on call 24/7, so we rotate that out on a fire-call list. The guys take their phones with them, their pagers with them, and stay ready ... Our prescribed burning team is our firefighting team.
How did you get to this point in your career as lead forester?
I went to school at Auburn University to get a forestry degree. Stuck around there and got my master's degree in longleaf pine management and research. After graduating, I took a job in research and outreach with Auburn. Probably six months into that venture, I was tasked with helping develop a forest management book for private land owners in the Southeast. It was through the Alabama Forestry Foundation, the Alabama Forestry Commission, the Alabama Forestry Association and Auburn University. We worked on that book three years or so. It got published in November of 2010.
What was going on back in '06 is we were getting ready for (the federal Base Realignment and Closure process); the Armor School was coming down (from Fort Knox). There was a need to do a lot of environmental assessments. So I was brought on as a contractor to help some of the heavy lifting with all of that. First off, it was the assessments and then, secondly, there was all kinds of construction, of course. The first step in construction is cutting the timber. So we did a lot of laying those things out and moving the timber. Beyond that, there was a lot of mitigation done for threatened and endangered species.
What happened then?
At the end of '07 I was hired on fulltime. I did replace somebody, a guy who had been here 20-plus years was stepping out the door.
How did you feel about taking charge of a large federal installation's land management operation? Were you nervous or calm and cool?
I felt privileged. It was a challenge. But I felt good about it.
Out of college, where did you think you would end up?
I wanted to be in management. I really liked working with private landowners, and longleaf restoration. That was kind of my focus. At Fort Benning, we basically get to do A-to-Z forest management, from prescribed burning to timber harvesting to ecosystem restoration and wildlife management, and threatened and native species management. It's a unique place to do all of those things.
What's the toughest part of your job?
It's probably that the job is inherently governmental. (laughs) Lots of bureaucracy, lots of regs (regulations).
What do you like the most about your job?
It is very simple. My job site is a 150,000-acre forested landscape. I have the opportunity, on a daily basis, to implement and perform the very things I was educated to do -- manage forests and natural resources. And knowing that managing the natural resources at Fort Benning supports a sustainable training landscape, military training and, ultimately, the freedom of our country. To me, that is the most satisfying part of my job.
What's your day-to-day life like?
Unfortunately, probably 25 percent of the time I get to go outside and actually get my boots on the ground. A lot of it's the planning and paperwork, all of those processes that need to happen so the rest of the staff can do their job on the ground.
Back to the prescribed burning, where do you get your weather forecast information?
The same place as the average public, weather.com and Accuweather. We also use the Georgia Forestry Commission. They have a meteorologist that kind of gives more of weather forecast from a fire perspective. So it goes into relative humidity, smoke dispersion, canopy, wind speed, all kinds of different variables. There's no cookbook set of black and white, here's what you're supposed to do. So you've got to look at several variables to meet your objective on that prescribed burn.
What equipment do you use to burn?
We use either drip torches that are handheld or we use ATVs that have basically a flame thrower off the back. Everything is done by hand on the ground ... Ignition patterns are based on wind parameters and things like that, as well as what's going to contain that fire. So we use either man-made features or natural features, such as rivers, creeks and drainages ... Our average burn is probably around 200 to 225 acres or so. They could range from 30 acres to 600 acres. We try not to burn more than 3,500 acres in one five-day period. We try to space that out and let the atmosphere recuperate.
What qualities or skills does someone need to be a forester? Obviously, you should like the outdoors.
Absolutely. Everyone on our staff here either has an associate's in forestry and wildlife, all of the way up to master's degrees in forestry and wildlife natural resources. So a solid education, a solid foundation.
You need curiosity?
I would say a willingness to learn, a willingness to adapt, a willingness to be able to accept criticism, to share your knowledge as well.
And get out and get sweaty, grimy and get worn out?
Oh yeah, and sunburn, chiggers, snakes, briars.
Finally, are there any challenges you guys have to look for down the road with your jobs in general? Global warming? Climate change? Stricter regulations?
Probably our biggest threat to prescribed burning is probably going to be air quality restrictions. For any natural resource professional in the years to come, it's going to be air quality.
Name: Stephen Hudson
Hometown: Fayette, Ala., north of Tuscaloosa
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 1996 graduate of Fayette County High School; earned bachelor’s degree in foresty from Auburn University in 2001; earned master’s of science degree in forestry from Auburn in 2003
Previous jobs: Worked for Auburn University, where he researched and wrote a private land management book, and worked for ECW Environmental, a contractor, at Fort Benning
Leisure time: Enjoys the outdoors, particularly hunting and fishing, and likes good action movies