Real Green People is a monthly feature that puts a spotlight on folks who are being the green change they want to see in the world.
There are teachers that you remember and then there are teachers that change the course of your life.
Dr. Charles Ruffner is a teacher who has changed the course of many young lives.
As a professor in Southern Illinois University's Forestry Program, Ruffner doesn’t just teach. He is passionate about forestry, and fire, and conservation (among other things) and his enthusiasm is more than just contagious.
The fact that so many of his former students are working in forestry and conservation, right here in Southern Illinois, speaks to the impact he has had on them.
Mike Baltz: Tell me about yourself. How did you end up as a fire ecologist?
Charles Ruffner: I grew up in south central Pennsylvania, in the Gettysburg-York area. Nearby there was the original Pennsylvania Forestry Academy at Penn State Mont Alto. When I got out of the Army, I enrolled in that forestry school because it was near my family’s hometown and I could still serve in the National Guard from there.
But my interest in forestry had a lot to do with my interest in fire. One of my earliest memories of fire use was when my father burned off a hillside to extend his garden patch. Boy howdy, that was a spectacle. I consider that my introduction to prescribed fire. Then, when serving in the U.S. Army at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I witnessed the Army Corps of Engineers burning pine stands to help maintain red-cockaded woodpecker habitat. That had a big influence on me as well.
I think it was natural then that, while a Ph.D. student at Penn State, I was influenced by Dr. Marc Abrams, a prominent forest ecologist and later by Dr. Bill Patterson III, an expert on prescribed fire at UMASS in Amherst.
MB: Tell me about your work with the Saluki Fire Dawgs.
CR: Based on my experiences with fire crews as an undergraduate and in graduate school, when I got to SIU, I wanted to build a program for training forestry students that gave them real world experience using prescribed fire to manage habitats. Back in 2001, Beth Davis Jones, a graduate student of mine, helped me recruit, train, and field the first Fire Dawgs crew. Since then, I’ve loved seeing former Saluki Fire Dawgs like Caleb Grantham, Kenny Delahunt, Nathan Speagle, Makenna Baxter, Emma Ensley, Anne Krippenstappel, Leah Harper, Hugo Papazian, Tanner Adamick, Jacob Hess, Ben Snyder, Jesse Riechman, Kyle Crider and many others doing conservation work in Southern Illinois and across the country. I feel super proud of the efforts of all these individuals.
MB: Can you elaborate a bit on your forestry work overseas?
CR: I am a proud prior service veteran with several wonderful overseas experiences spanning my 13 years of active duty, National Guard, and DOD civilian deployments. From 2008 to 2014, opportunities through the College of Agricultural Sciences took me to Afghanistan, Dominican Republic, and Morocco. My last long tour was in Zabul Province, Afghanistan, with the Mississippi National Guard ADT4 (2012 to 2013). Those experiences, especially in Afghanistan, working on forestry projects with rural villagers, were some of the most rewarding experiences of my life, honestly.
MB: What are some of your thoughts on the future of our forests in Southern Illinois?
CR: I am so happy to see the increased acceptance of fire on the landscape. But although we are burning far more acres in this state than in the past, we are still not consistently burning on a scale necessary to keep our oak forests and the associated oak forest ecosystems healthy. So, we really need to focus on building our prescribed fire capacity by training many more fire crew members and we need better funding for private landowners and land trusts to get more burning accomplished.
MB: What do you wish more people understood about state of the forests in Southern Illinois?
CR: I want my students and every resident of Southern Illinois to realize that due to a lack of natural disturbance for much of the last 100 years and the introductions of many invasive species, our oak forests are not regenerating. That understanding will hopefully motivate the general public to actively support agency efforts to manage forests and encourage private landowners to seek out guidance that will enable them to be the best possible stewards of their forested acres.