Did you know this approach to land management arguably was first developed and practiced in a meaningful manner on Killearn Estates and other properties in the Red Hills region?
It’s a factual statement, not hyperbole! Starting in 1930s, Herbert Stoddard became the consulting land manager for the vast swath of sports hunting estates that lies between Tallahassee and Thomasville. Killearn Plantation, which eventually became Maclay State Gardens and a large residential development, was one of the estates where Stoddard provided guidance on land management.
Stoddard’s approach to land management was unique at the time because it stressed frequent use of prescribed fire. Fire is a natural process in southern pinelands and had been used for centuries before Stoddard arrived in the Red Hills to help clear brush and maintain the grassland qualities of southern pinelands.
Lightning launched fires for thousands of years, and Native Americans and early settlers kept up the practice. But beginning in the early 1900s, government foresters tried to suppress the use of fire using a vigorous propaganda campaign that belittled fire practitioners in the south as an uneducated lot who knew little about proper land management.
Unfortunately, once fire is removed, our southern pinewoods quickly lose the great diversity of plant and animal life that they support, including Bobwhite Quail, the popular game species hunted throughout the Red Hills.
“Stoddard was among the first to suggest that the government was wrong,” notes Albert Way, author of Conserving Southern Longleaf: Herbert Stoddard and the Rise of Ecological Land Management. “Stoddard recognized that the longleaf-wiregrass ecosystem in particular had evolved in concert with frequent fire, and he argued that fire should be harnessed as a tool of ecological management.”
Stoddard not only fought to keep fire on the landscape, but he also developed a unique system of timber harvest that focused on the culling of small numbers of trees here and there rather than using the “clear-cut-and-run” philosophy that dominated southern timber operations at the time. A light thinning of pine trees could be conducted every 10-years or so to provide steady income without liquidating the forest. After all, the trees were integral to prescribed fires because the vast quantities of needles shed each year provided important fuels to carry fires. Stoddard’s system of harvest was designed with an eye toward future generations and the goal of keeping all the pieces of the ecosystem in place in perpetuity – from basic ecological processes to habitat for both rare species and game species.
If these accomplishments weren’t enough, Stoddard was nationally recognized for his scientific studies of birds and also established the profession of wildlife management. Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac and often considered the father of wildlife management, recognized this peculiar genius in a letter he sent Stoddard in the 1934:
I am sending you by express a yew bow, which I have been making for you this winter. I have enjoyed it because it was a way to express my affection and regard for one of the few who understands what yew bows—and quail and mallards and wind and sunsets—are all about.
Stoddard’s understanding of wind and sunsets—the processes of the forest, not just the birds and trees within—was arguably his greatest gift. It’s a gift that should place Stoddard firmly among the conservation giants of North America. Herbert Stoddard helped conserve a large, unique Red Hills landscape and the ecological processes essential for sustaining the landscape. It’s neigh time Stoddard received appropriate recognition. It’s certainly something that I contemplate every time I sit at the corner of U.S. 319 and Killarney Way waiting for the traffic light to change.
Jim Cox is the Director of the Stoddard Bird Lab at Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy