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Impediments to Prescribed Burning: NRCS Interviews

NRCS-Impediments to Burning

NRCS contracted with NC State to conduct a series of interviews with NRCS state office and field staff, along with some key partners, to collect observations on major impediments to implementing prescribed burning on-the-ground. The Executive Summary is posted here; for a copy of the full report contact Bridgett.Costanzo@usda.gov.

Prescribed Burning Impediments: Summary of NRCS Interviews in Six Southeastern States

March 2019

Agreement 68-3A75-17-342 Task One

Tom L. Darden, Contractor, NC State

Executive Summary: Prescribed burning is a critical conservation practice to manage and establish a viable longleaf pine ecosystem in the Southeastern U.S. and support a host of rare native wildlife species that thrive in these habitats.  Under a cooperative agreement with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), North Carolina State University (NCSU) was tasked with identifying mechanisms for NRCS to promote more widespread and consistent use of prescribed burning as a conservation practice.  Interviews with NRCS state office staff were held in AL, MS, FL, SC, GA and NC. This document summarizes the findings from those interviews.  A bulleted list of common barriers to prescribed burning on private lands, and potential solutions to those barriers, are found below.

Common Barriers to Prescribed Burn Implementation:

Barriers common to the larger conservation partnership:

  • Limited availability of Prescribed Burning Associations (i.e. landowners organized to help each other) as an emerging approach.
  • Limited availability of landowner training/mentoring, as well as lack of equipment for private lands use.
  • State forestry agencies have limited capacity to conduct burns on private lands due to funding/personnel cuts or competing needs for wildfire suppression.
  • Lack of capacity of qualified private vendors in many geographies.
  • Maintaining an up-to-date prescribed burn vendor list(s) has proven to be difficult due to the constant need to update the list(s).
  • Landowner concerns for liability and affordable insurance are frequently strong deterrents.

Barriers specific to NRCS efforts:

  • NRCS is severely under-staffed in forestry and prescribed burn planning expertise in the SE region.
  • There are too few Technical Service Providers (TSP’s) available to prepare burn plans in support of NRCS contracting.
  • Basic information needed to assess the feasibility of conducting a prescribed burn such as the parcel size, excess fuel load, proximity to major roadways and other development, etc. is not readily available and this results in contract failures that could have been avoided if sign-ups were more carefully evaluated and screened before contract obligations were made.
  • Short (2-3 year) contract length is problematic, especially for contracts that include multiple conservation practices that necessarily precede prescribed burn – there may be insufficient time remaining in the contract to conduct the burn, especially with any weather delays.
  • Concerns for privacy protection (i.e. landowner PII data) have led to confusion, delays and ineffectiveness in gaining the assistance of qualified vendors and partners to assist USDA participants in conducing prescribed burns.


Possible Solutions to Address Barriers

Possible solutions applicable to the larger conservation community:

  • Work locally with state forestry staff to identify active and qualified prescribed burn vendors and provide that information to interested landowners (recognizing this does not constitute endorsements).
  • Promote Prescribed Burn Associations in longleaf Significant Geographic Areas first.
  • Enlist the help of Local Implementation Teams to assist producers within Significant Geographic Areas to complete burning plans and, as possible, conduct burns.
  • Identify and support “burn champions” or mentors to improve the acceptance and implementation of prescribed burning on private lands.

Possible solutions specific to NRCS:

  • Based on a pilot approach underway between NRCS and the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, continue to support third party vendors (private, NGO or states) to provide supplemental technical assistance to producers for execution of prescribed burn contracts with NRCS.
  • Increase technical assistance relative to prescribed burning with an emphasis on -
    • Establishing a strategically coordinated body of Technical Service Providers in the priority landscapes like the Alabama Longleaf Ecosystem Restoration Team (ALERT) with the goal of coordinated outreach and technical assistance to landowners in support of NRCS field staff.
    • o   Host training sessions to increase the number of Technical Service Providers (TSP’s) qualified to help with landowner burn plans (e.g. Florida Forest Service trains TSP’s under a RCPP agreement).
    • Administrative changes to encourage successful prescribed fire contracting-
      • Develop a list of criteria to be used by field staff to evaluate the feasibility of a successful prescribed burn occurring, and for discussion with landowners prior to contracting.
      • Modify screening and/or ranking questions in the future to favor those lands with higher likelihood of successful contract execution (feasible parcel size and location, landowner history or vendor burning capacity, etc.).
      • o   Share payment schedules now used by some NRCS state offices to identify and support “high risk” prescribed burns (e.g. time since last burn, fuel load, etc.) and ensure all states are offering higher cost share to encourage prescribed burns in neglected stands.
      • To establish closer partnerships, consider MOU’s with LIT’s to promote a better coordinated approach on private lands.
      • Establish clarity in NRCS guidance to field staff regarding the protection of PII data, especially in identifying approved, practical and effective mechanisms for sharing PII data with partners or vendors capable of providing additional technical assistance to USDA participants for prescribed burn contracts.
      • Consider either increasing contract lengths if prescribed burning is an included practice or separating out practices to create “burn only” contracts to address the identified impediment of inadequate contract duration to complete multiple conservation practices.


Recommendations for Potential Next Steps:

Headquarters staff of NRCS will distribute this Executive Summary and state-level interview notes to NRCS state offices who participated in the initial interviews or might have a vested interest in this topic.  Subsequent discussions within NRCS will determine which of the above (or additional) barriers are deemed most problematic, and identify solution with the most potential to be effective for agency action.  Similar discussions will involve NRCS partners, including those in SERPPAS, the Longleaf Partnership Council, and others.

NRCS funded this project.

AL, FL, GA, LA, MS,SC