In this episode, Zach VanHook of Kissimmee Valley Foresters educates viewers on the world of forestry and land management in the beautiful state of Florida. Zach emphasizes the importance of prescribed fires in Florida, and their role in maintaining forest health, reducing fuels, and promoting the growth of unique species and habitats. He also talks about mitigation banking and conservation easements as development spreads and conservation becomes more important.
Below is an excerpt from the interview. Listen above for the full podcast.
How did your dad start Kissimmee Valley Foresters? He was a forester at the Avon Park Air Force Range while handling all the fire, timber sales, and management of the lands. They had 110,000 acres out there. That was where he went to work after he graduated college. Then in the 80s, he started consulting business with a partner. They split in the 90s and he started doing his own thing.
How did your career begin? I graduated from ABAC in South Georgia with a natural resources degree. When I did that in 2016, I went to work full time with dad. As far back as I can remember, I always helped him burn at the bombing range.
It's kind of changed. We use a bigger crew now. Now, we have a four-man crew that helps us and back then it’d be just dad and I burning 500 or 700 acres. He would hand me a drip torch and say, “I'll pick you up at the next road. Light fire until you get there.”
Why would someone start these fires? Fire in Florida is natural. It's healthy, it keeps your forest healthy, and it reduces your fuels. You have certain species of plants and animals that rely on fire to be able to maintain their habitat.
Look at certain species like wiregrass. The next day (after the prescribed fire), if you had a heavy dew, your wiregrass might already grow back a half an inch or so. It all depends on your fuels or what kind of habitat you're burning.
Why do you work with environmental engineers? We do a lot of work for mitigation banks. People like Elaine Imbruglia do all the permits and recommendations and then we implement what they recommend. From burning to herbicide treatments of invasives or exotics, silt fence installation, reforestation, restoration, it's a very vast array of things that we do. Every day is different. Everything we do depends on the weather,
What is mitigation banking? Central Florida is a ridge that’s been out of water for hundreds of thousands of years ago, but there are certain species and animals that only live on the ridge. So, if you're going to develop a piece of that land, you've got to find another place to be able to save a piece of land. Then, we implement the fire or the habitat management of whatever they find to save and manage.
Thankfully, there's easements that Dean [Saunders] works on quite a bit. Conservation easement mitigation banks are managed in perpetuity. Once they are a mitigation bank, that's all they will ever be and you’ll manage the land forever. You're taking from one place and giving back to another place.
Our job is to implement a lot of the management activities between fire and things like that. Mitigation banks have taken off over the last few years. We’re fortunate that we get to work on a lot of private ranches around Central Florida and travel to different places.
How do prescribed fires work? It all depends on the weather during the week. We literally watch the weather nonstop and see what the winds are along with dispersion and humidity. We have a lot of different places that we burn or we're set up to burn, but we're fortunate to have a lot of equipment where we can move from one place to another depending on the weather. If the weather is right at Yeehaw Junction tomorrow, we'll be there. If the weather is right in Land O’ Lakes tomorrow, then we would be over there.
It all depends on the wind. Fire is not the problem in Florida, it's smoke. When you get more and more people, where your smoke is going to go is your biggest issue. If you are burning on the south side of Highway 16 at Yeehaw Junction, then you would want a north wind so that your smoke is not blowing over the highway.
What qualifies a piece of land to be burned? Fire in Florida is natural. Whether we burn it or if Mother Nature burns it, it's just a matter of time. For your forest to be healthy, you would want to maintain it. You would want to keep it burned on a certain interval. Around two to three years depending on what your fuels are and what your habitat is. If a landowner were to call us, normally we would go out, look around, see what their place looks like, and then we would come up with a plan on different strategies to implement.
Click above to watch the whole episode. View past and future episodes of "In Our Expert Opinion" on our YouTube playlist.
Listen and subscribe to In Our Expert Opinion