John McGuire (’93 Env. Sci., ’95 Biol.) directs the Private Lands Prescribed Fire Program at Tall Timbers, Inc. He holds a master’s degree in forestry from Auburn University and serves as president of both the Alabama Prescribed Fire Council and Alabama Invasive Plant Council.
His awards include 2016 Forest Conservationist of the Year in Jackson, Missouri; 2008 Longleaf Alliance Contribution Award in Auburn, Alabama; 2004 USDA Forest Service Centennial Congress Award in Asheville, North Carolina; 2003 South Carolina Wildlife Society Forest Stewardship Award in Columbia, South Carolina; and 2000 Governor’s Award for Forest Conservation in Montgomery, Alabama.
McGuire was the outreach coordinator for the Longleaf Alliance, which works to ensure a sustainable future for longleaf pine ecosystems. He’s also served as senior project manager for Westervelt Ecological Services and vice president of One-Attack Fire Management before coming to Tall Timbers.
How did your time and studies at WSU set you on a path to a career in forest conservation and forest fire management?
My family moved to the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1970s. I was fortunate to have parents who actively shared the wonderful nature experiences that that region has to offer—whether it was observing a hibernaculum of garter snakes emerging from the winter ground in Bremerton and fishing for bright trout in the Naches River to the family collectively trying and often failing to put our arms around ancient trees in the Cascades.
When I arrived a Pullman as a student, I already carried that love of the Pacific Northwest’s natural areas in my heart. Enrolling in a program in Environmental Sciences seemed the most logical fit for that passion. Washington State University further introduced me to the wisdom of forest conservation pioneers like Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, Eugene Odum, and others, as well as allowed me to engage in college field trips or field study sites at places such as Dworshak Reservoir, Steptoe Butte, tidal pools off Whidbey Island, or the poorly named Scablands where we chased grassland birds.
Though my intent was to take that degree and practice hazardous waste remediation, a few summers as a WSU-facilitated student intern at Hanford could not overcome the flame that many of my professors and peers had ignited for forest conservation. I never fancied myself a “good” student, but I couldn’t get enough of education at WSU and found myself chasing multiple majors and degrees. There were so many amazing natural resources classes, and a cooperative agreement with University of Idaho down the road opened up even more academic opportunities.
It was one night in 1995, however, when I was one of three students watching an informal lecture at the student union when the light went on. I listened intently as a salt-and-pepper-haired lecturer from Cougar Mountain, Oregon, talked about forest fires. She flipped through a clunky slide carousel showing riveting picture after riveting picture of how fire could be used to the benefit of forests like those found in Blue and Cascade Mountains. For a child raised on the anti-forest fire message Smokey Bear, I found this heretical discussion of good fire so titillating. I wanted to learn more.
I sought out the wisdom of my mentor and advisor, Eldon Franz, asking, “Where do I learn about this…good fire?” From behind perilously perched stacks of journal articles and student reports, he pointed, “You go South.” And so I did.
Franz was able to assist me in getting an internship with a new research field station in south Georgia called the Jones Ecological Research Center. I said my goodbyes to my family and hopped on a plane to Tallahassee, Florida. With hair down my back and a long-sleeved flannel—both the requisite attire of the Pacific Northwest at the time—I emerged from the airplane only to be tackled by a wall of steam from the heat and humidity that you find in July in Florida.
As I rolled up my sleeves and pulled back my hair, the driver took me through a foreign landscape: asphalt, Waffle Houses, corn fields, cotton, peanuts, and, finally, trees. We pulled up to an exquisite forest of widely spaced trees over a carpet of grasses and flowers. This was my first exposure to longleaf pine, and it was love at first sight.
What are your favorite WSU memories? What activities were involved with during your time in Pullman?
Studying never came easy to me, and I had to work extra hard to keep from getting a tense phone call from my parents asking about my grades dipping. Like most students at the time, I didn’t have a car and the majority of my travel around town and campus was by bicycle. Because I had friends who’d try to drag me off somewhere, I would purposely find hidden places on campus to study. Some of my fondest memories were spending countless hours in these refugia, studying and daydreaming of the future. These times were extra special when the snow would start to fall. I’d emerge from my hiding place, zip up my coat, knock the snow off my bike seat, and start the 2-mile ride home. There were few, if any), cars on the road, and there was a stillness over Pullman like no other times. To this day, I can still hear the sound of fresh snow crunching under my bike tires on those treks home.
But my time on the Palouse wasn’t always studying. Many fond memories include hitching rides to the Snake River to fish in the spring, trying to stay active with intramural sports, and impairing my high-frequency hearing in smoke-filled bars listening to some really good music that was endemic to the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s.
They say youth is wasted on the young. However, as I round the bend on my life, significantly closer to the end of my professional career than the beginning, I have very few regrets as I recall the mentors, friends, and experiences I found during that chapter in my life. You go into natural resources knowing that you can at times trade experience for profitability. Had I won the lottery, I feel I’d still be doing the same thing I’m doing now, just probably volunteering.
What is special about the longleaf pine forests of the South? How are they different from pine forests of the Pacific Northwest?
The allure of the longleaf pine forests for me is hard to describe. Honestly, I don’t think it can be narrowed to just one thing. Scientifically speaking, this forest has an immense biodiversity. It is home to a number of threatened and endangered species. It filters surface water runoff. It captures large volumes of carbon.
However, it’s the thousands of threads that weave together these forests that makes it special. Its allure is both spatial and ephemeral. I love the sea of wildflowers that emerge in spring and fall. I love the sound of the wind as it gently sways the tops of the pine trees. And I mostly love the smell of smoke as a regenerative and restorative fire moves slowly through the grasses.
But most importantly, these forests are special in that they would cease to be without frequent low-intensity fire. It was that WSU discussion of prescribed fire, generally defined as a low-intensity fire purposely set to achieve specific conditions, that initially drew me to this forest type. Low-intensity fire is necessary to this and other forest types. In forests like longleaf pine, fire should be viewed as important as other elements such as rain, sunshine, or soil productivity. In fact, fire is so basic to this forest that the exclusion of fire should be perceived as a disturbance.
Under the advice of my advisor, I came South to learn about prescribed fire. My intent at the time was to spend a few years working in longleaf pine forests and take that knowledge home. I would learn about fire and forest management and bring that knowledge back to Washington state to work in the dry forests like Ponderosa pin), grassland and scrublands of eastern Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. These areas also require frequent, low-intensity fire.
But over the few decades in which my professional career was blossoming, the political climate of Washington had not moved in favor of adopting landscape-scale good fire. Instead, we all watched as every summer, inaction resulted in replacing low-intensity, frequent fires with infrequent, high-intensity fires. In fact, it’s only been within the last few years following an ever-intensifying crisis of untamed wildfires that the narrative has slowly begun to shift to restoring this controlled process back to many of Washington’s forests, shrub, and grasslands. But for me, the love affair with longleaf pine forests has gone on too long to sever, and I call these forests and the South my home now.
What inspired this particular book?
When I first arrived in Georgia in 1995, this longleaf pine forest was is dire need of help. It had largely disappeared from the landscape or was in great decline. The timing was right to create a grass-roots effort to both restore this amazing forest and the processes, like fire, that are vital to its existence. And so, I became activated to help create a groundswell of interest and try to bring this forest back.
My team moved from Virginia to Texas trying to promote more longleaf pine and fire like a bunch of tent-revival evangelists. Our message wasn’t always appreciated. More than once, we were run out of a venue for preaching the heretics of forest conservation and fire management. Slowly the tide turned, especially with the scientific community and those who worked full-time in natural resources. This was a small group, however. What we still lacked was the overall support of general public.
I’d learned a great deal during those formative years and wanted to get it down on paper lest I hit my head and forget it all. More than anything, I wanted to have a compendium to share with the public on what makes these fire forests so unique. I had no disillusion that I would retire off royalties from this book. It was intended to be an educational tool all along.
Talk about the research and process of writing this book. What was most challenging?
I suspect I have traveled nearly every country road from Virginia to Texas. At least, it often felt that way. There were times I felt like a foggy-brained rock star, waking up in a motel or hotelin a small town and forgetting where I was prior to my workshop. But the value is I met a lot of people and got to see much of the forest that remained. That was my research. It wasn’t time in a library. It was time surrounded by exquisite forests or soaking up stories from folks who grew up or worked in this type of forest.
From inception to print, this book took about a decade to finish. For any project that takes that long, day-to-day of life can get in the way. Raising a family and staying gainfully employed was my priority, though I expect my wife would answer that I tested that statement at times. As the scope of the project kept getting larger and larger, I eventually would bring in two coauthors. With coauthors, challenges exist navigating different writing styles and interests. But, by far, the largest challenge was to know when to stop. We could have produced multiple volumes. But, instead, we had to say “good enough.” In the end, we produced a book with more than 60,000 words, 320 pages, 300 pictures, and a dozen or more drawings.
Who is your intended audience, and what do you hope they gain from it?
As the general public assumes the brunt of inconvenience of short-lived smoke from our prescribed fires, it was the important audience I intended to target. Generally, I wanted to create a book that a group of snowbirds visiting someplace like Beaufort, South Carolina, could pick up in order to understand what they were seeing during their daily walk or that a group of junior high school kids could use in their classroom to inspire the next generation of forest conservationists. The book was to be grounded in science but not for scientists.
In your current role, how much time do you get to spend in the forest?
My office is in the middle of a 4,000-acre forest that is part of the Red Hills region of Florida, one of the last geographic vestiges where old-growth longleaf pine forests can be found. This area is generally known as the cradle of the practice of prescribed burning. My office is a restored early 20th-century building of Herbert Stoddard, the godfather of prescribed burning. I can sit in my office with the windows open and hear endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers foraging in the trees 50 feet from my office window. I’m fortunate in that sense. But sitting in an office has its limits when someone whose entire professional career has largely included dragging a flaming drip torch through the woods. When I get antsy every burn season, I will come out and help carry fire throughout the woods. Alas, burning in the South is largely a young person’s business and my helping is probably more sympathy akin to an old bird dog being allowed to sit on the wagon during a hunt. But I still do it on occasion and, in fact, crave it.
What are your hopes for the longleaf pine forests of the South?
My hope for the longleaf pine forest is that we’re able to maintain it and the use of prescribed fire for future generations. There are too many imperiled plants and animals that depend on this forest type to lose it. But more importantly, I want the South’s longleaf pine forests and use of prescribed fire to maintain these forests to serve as an example of exemplary land management and forest conservation for the rest of the country.
Outside the region, the Deep South is often—erroneously—viewed as nothing more than uninformed bumblers. And yet we’ve maintained and restored forests that contain some of the most rich and biodiverse forest outside of the tropics. I’d like to see the work that has taken place in our longleaf pine forests as a shining example by states like Washington on how forests can be sustainably managed with low-intensity prescribed fires. There are still so many valuable lessons that other forest managers from across the country can learn from those who have been sustainability managing longleaf pine for many generations.
What else do you want Cougs to know?
The quality of your classwork is important. However, the shared experience that it takes to go through some of the programs at schools like WSU is perhaps equally as important for future employment. Though I rarely cross paths with Cougs in Georgia or Florida, I go out of my way to talk with them when I do. Our shared experience on the Palouse connects us all.