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Q&A with Jesse Riechman | 'The best calls were the wildfires because they were beautiful'

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Jesse Riechman is a Carbondale native that left town and then took the long way back home, eventually rediscovering his passion for the forests of Southern Illinois.

Riechman is currently the coordinator of the Southern Illinois Prescribed Burn Association and lives in the Makanda neighborhood where he grew up.

Mike Baltz: First, tell me a little about yourself. Where'd you grow up? Were you always interested in the outdoors, nature, etc.? Where'd you go to school?

Jesse Riechman: I’m a Carbondale native. I was born and raised just south of town in Makanda. My parents didn’t allow TV watching, and the only reference to video games I heard was from my friends at school. So, I spent a lot of time outside in the woods around our house and along the shore of Cedar Lake. It wasn’t until I went to high school at Carbondale Community High School that I realized what all the other kids did with their free time, and how lucky (and different) I was.

I left Carbondale to go to college because I wanted to get away from what I knew. I went to Oxford, Ohio and attended Miami University on a Hispanic scholarship. I tried a few majors such as Zoology and engineering, and even got accepted into the school of architecture, but finally graduated with a major in English/Journalism and a minor in Oceanography, of all things. After college I had a bunch of crazy jobs around the country, including working for Bicycling Magazine in Pennsylvania, until I returned to Carbondale several years later.

MB: What got you particularly interested in fire?

JR: Kind of a long story, I guess. When I came back to Carbondale I joined the Makanda Fire Department and went to school for my EMT license. I fought a lot of house fires and a few wildfires, and saw some horrific vehicle accidents. It was all very exciting but heartbreaking at the same time. The best calls were the wildfires because they were beautiful and no one usually died.

At 30 years old, I found myself protesting a timber harvest. I had always felt connected to the forest and knew I was on the right side. At least it felt right, emotionally and morally. As I argued and protested and made outrageous claims about timber harvesting, I remember coming to a slow realization that I didn’t have any formal knowledge of what I was talking about. I didn’t have a strong enough background in those sciences and the stuff I was saying was just rhetoric that I repeated, even if I believed it.

Luckily, my parents had instilled a lot of critical thinking skills in me, and that’s probably what gave me that self-awareness. I was embarrassed and motivated at the same time. I decided to go to grad school at SIU. Not knowing how the process worked, I walked into the forestry department and told them I planned on attending the next semester. They played along, and assigned me to a professor who was out of the country and couldn’t say no. That was Dr. Charles Ruffner. As soon as I went on my first prescribed burn with the Fire Dawgs, I knew I was home.

MB: Tell me about getting the Southern Illinois Prescribed Burn Association (SIPBA) started?

JR: I don’t get the credit for starting SIPBA. The idea was actually hatched by some IDNR staff including David Allen, Jody Shimp, and some folks from the Quail Unlimited chapter in Pope County, among others. They wrote a grant in 2006 to get the SIPBA started with some donated equipment and a few dozen members. Dr. Ruffner was part of that effort too, and he suggested I research SIPBA as a case study that could provide guidance for the formation of similar groups. I used my old journalism skills to produce some great interviews and came up with a pretty good roadmap for success, which we still use today.

I defended my thesis and was in the process of getting my research published when Richard Johnson, the original SIPBA Coordinator, retired. I interviewed and was overjoyed to be offered the job in 2012. Subsequently, I earned my Illinois Prescribed Burn Manager Certification and began the steep learning curve that comes with grant writing and the nonprofit world.

MB: What is a Prescribed Burn Association?

JR: A Prescribed Burn Association (PBA) is essentially a group of landowners with a common goal to use prescribed fire as a land management tool. These things have existed out West for a number of years, especially in Texas and Oklahoma.

PBAs were originally focused on range management and operated in the fashion of barn-raising because prescribed fires can’t be done safely without a crew. But the rest of the equation is usually pretty affordable. So, the main idea was to get a bunch of landowners together who could help each other on a rotating basis, and they would pool their ATVs, trucks and tractors as well.

The Southern Illinois Prescribed Burn Association was based on those models, but with adaptations specific to conditions in the Midwest. This seems to be the model that removes the most barriers that prevent a private landowner form using prescribed fire in Southern Illinois.

MB: What are some of the highlights of your job? What are some of the professional accomplishments you are proudest of?

JR: In general, the highlight of every fire season is working a well-planned burn with good fire breaks, a good crew and good weather in this beautiful landscape we have. That combination can feel like the best day I’ve ever spent in the outdoors and makes all the other challenges worth it.

We’ve got a lot more to be proud of, though. Over the years, we’ve grown the organization to almost 200 members, working across the southern 11 counties of Illinois, which reaches from river to river. Part of that growth involved partnering with other entities like the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Shawnee National Forest, and The Nature Conservancy.

We also teamed-up with the River-to-River Cooperative Weed Management Area to create another volunteer-based group called the Forest Restoration Support Team that helps landowners tackle invasive species control on each others properties, similar to the SIPBA model.

Professionally, I’m perhaps most proud of the recent launch of the Great Rivers Prescribed Burn Association (GRPBA), which is the first replication of the SIPBA model (the second in the state). Thanks to some excellent leadership from Lewis and Clark College, the GRPBA has already had several successful burns and is growing steadily from their base in Godfrey, IL.

MB: Tell me about your habitat restoration projects in your neighborhood.

JR: Since I now live in the neighborhood where I grew up, I have a memory of how the woods used to look, and now I’ve got the knowledge to understand why it has changed and what kinds of management are needed to restore it. I’m seeing it with a fresh perspective. I’m also seeing it as an opportunity to benefit my community, and to make sure my young son grows up in the same healthy woods that I did.

Luckily, my neighbors at Midland Hills Country Club have the same vision. Together, we have transformed our 80-acre golf course into a complex native habitat with pollinator plantings, native prairies, and hardwood forest. Many more acres of forest on the property are in a Forest Management Plan and have undergone the first round of Forest stand improvement and invasive species treatments. We also have a Conservation Stewardship Plan that helps fund even more habitat work.

The community has a natural resource committee to guide these efforts and has logged hundreds of hours of restoration work. This spring, we are partnering with the city of Carbondale to plan a prescribed burn that extends from our property onto Cedar Lake property. It’s rewarding to see our community join hands to do this for ourselves and our future generations. And there’s nothing like seeing the smiling faces of landowners who know they are “part of the solution”.

MB: Why are you doing all of this? Do you really think you can make a difference?

JR: That’s a brave question to ask a passionate conservationist! I think of myself as a restoration realist. Here’s my perspective. People have drastically altered the environment, to say the least. We’ve built roads that subdivide habitats, lakes and farm fields that replace one ecosystem with a completely new one (or none at all).

Now, it’s time to take responsibility. And it’s not about erasing our mark on the earth, it’s about making human triumphs less tragic for the other inhabitants. It means restoring the forests so they are more resilient to climate change, disease, and disturbance. It means giving people an opportunity to heal nature with their own hands so that they feel responsible for it and pass on the passion and commitment to the next generation.

Having said that, the answer is ‘yes’. I think I can make a difference. Because when I see a diverse group of people from differing backgrounds, with conflicting political views, sweating together while releasing an oak forest from the chokehold of invasive plants, I know that we’re making a difference.

MB: What makes you hopeful about the future and about the planet your kids will inherit?

JR: Kids are told that they are the future, as if the responsibility for fixing the accumulated damage of centuries of shortsighted decision-making falls on their shoulders. I know I hoped my generation would be the one that enacted the change that began to heal the planet, but I don’t think we’ve done it.

It feels like the pendulum of conservation keeps swinging. There are years when the forest wins, and years when the forest loses. There are generations of action, and generations of apathy. But I am hopeful that this next generation will be a generation of action. And that they will be able to build on the progress we are making and the partnerships that we are building in Southern Illinois.

But my kids won’t be going it alone, because as long as I’m around I’ll be working for them and beside them to make the world a better place for their kids!

(For more information about the Southern Illinois Prescribed Burn Association visit www.sipba.org)

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