Fire as a friend

Published 7:00 am Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Not many small communities can claim to have a national influence, but Pearl River County can.

In going back through my mind on some stories I have covered over the years is one on the use of fire, which continues to influence forest managers and cause consternation among those who believe that all fire is evil. The late S.W. Greene, who lived and worked in Pearl River County, had much to do with advancing fire as a friend.

He had to battle the USDA to keep his work from being buried. The U.S. Forest Service, a part of the USDA, wanted to ban fire in the woods with its Smokey the Bear campaign. To the higher ups at the USDA, back then fire in the woods was evil regardless of the scientific research supporting the benefits.

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Greene was fighting this battle in the 1920s and 1930s. A bulletin issued by the USDA in June 1939, has Greene listed as a sort of co-author, but in its opening it warns against fire in the woods, except in longleaf pines.

Far to the north in Coffeeville, Miss., the late John Bailey, a quail plantation owner, was fighting a similar battle as the U.S. Forest Service bought up land during the Great Depression to found the Holly Springs National Forest.

Bailey told me once that Forest Service personnel threatened him with dire consequences if the fire he lit to burn over the plantation lands leaped over the fence into the national forest. The fire helped lespedeza and ragweed on whose seed the quail feasted, Bailey said. Later, he said, they studied his methods and followed them for controlled burns in their loblolly pine forests.

Greene and Bailey never met and probably didn’t even know about each other in that day before the Internet and social media, but I suspect they would have been friends.