Authored by Jacob Barrett
Throughout my college years, my schedule revolved around herps. If I was not in class or working, it was pretty safe to say that I was out somewhere with my buddies looking for critters. I considered myself lucky to be able to have had time to get out and see some of Georgia’s spectacular ecosystems. I knew that after I graduated I did not want to be tucked away in a cubicle where I would hardly ever see the light of day. After I finished up with school in May 2015, I started my through-hike of the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia. When I got back from my hike in September, I heard through the grapevine that The Orianne Society would be hiring a couple of seasonal fire Field Technician positions. I have always had an interest in prescribed fire and the necessary role that it plays in the Longleaf-Wiregrass ecosystem, and burning for the conservation of Indigo Snakes and Gopher Tortoises was just icing on the cake.
I really did not know exactly what to expect when I first started working at Orianne in January. I had very little fire experience, but I had a strong will to learn. Our first burn of the year was with a new, private landowner in the adjacent county to the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve (OISP). I would be lying if I said that I was not nervous, but under the direction of Brannon Knight (Orianne’s Stewardship Coordinator), it went off without a hitch. Since that first burn of the year, we have had 43 burn days and burned a total of 4,438 acres.
Throughout this season I have had the privilege to burn with many different private landowners. I was able to watch relationships with new private landowners form and strengthen with each interaction. It has been a very encouraging sight to see that so many people are “on fire” for Indigo Snake and Gopher Tortoise conservation. It has been awesome to be able to see these private properties and the unique plant communities that come along with them. While private lands management plays a large role in our mission, we have also burned on many Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy lands throughout Indigo range.
Our burns on the preserve have been great, as well. The first unit that we burned on the OISP was on the upper middle tract in March. At the time I had been training for my first ultra marathon, so I spent a lot of time running all over the lower and middle tract. I can remember running late one evening about a week after we burned that particular unit. The unit had a Wiregrass understory with grass-stage Longleaf. It was getting close to sunset as I ran by the unit, and all I could see was a sea of green underneath the top-killed Turkey Oaks. It was the most amazing sight that I had seen at that point during my term. It literally gave me chills to know that I had helped make that happen. The Wiregrass was coming back full force, and the grass-stage Longleaf were doing great. All I could think about was what it will look like in years to come.
Since beginning my term here at The Orianne Society, I have watched and learned so much from Brannon and simply from fire itself. Standing on the fire line and watching how the flames dance through different fuel types as the season has progressed has been truly amazing. There have been many early mornings and late nights, but it has been worth every minute and I would not trade it for anything. Although I have not seen the infamous Indigo (yet), I have seen so many cool critters that utilize these habitats that we are promoting. Before I took this job, I had taken a lot of these ecosystems for granted. I did not realize exactly how much time and effort goes into transforming and restoring these awesome places. I often think of the Field of Dreams philosophy, “If you build it, they will come.” I hope to be lucky enough to continue the “building” process after my season here has finished.