Identifying Socio-ecological Factors Influencing the Use of Prescribed Fire to Maintain and Restore Ecosystem Health in Texas, USA and Northern Chihuahua, Mexico



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There is a critical need for more studies to identify socio-ecological drivers that affect conservation and management of fire adapted ecosystems, yet studies that identify such variables and explore their interaction in specific systems are not only scarce but limited to only a few systems. Although information on the socio-ecological effects of prescribed fire application exists, there is no integrative framework that simultaneously considers the interplay between social and ecological factors affecting the use of prescribed fires. Fire suppression, together with other human and natural disturbances in grassland systems that are adapted to episodic fire, are the major factors that have contributed to the recruitment of woody species into grasslands worldwide. Even though the ecology of restoring these fire prone systems back to a grassland state is becoming clearer, the major hurdle to reintroducing historic fire at a landscape scale is its social acceptability. To address these deficiencies, I studied the socio-ecological factors influencing the use of prescribed fire in Texas, USA and Chihuahua, Mexico using a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches to examine how social and ecological factors affect ecosystem conservation and management of semi-arid grassland systems. For the Texas case study I used quantitative survey data analyzed using logistic regression models and structural equation models. For the Mexico case study I used qualitative interviews gathered using a snowball network sampling approach and coded them based on the analytic themes of land cover change, institutional failure, market drivers, and population dynamics.

Results from the Texas case study suggest that risk taking orientation and especially, perceived support from others when implementing prescribed burns, play important roles in determining attitudes towards the use of high-intensity prescribed fires, which are sometimes needed to restore ecosystems. Results from the Texas case study also highlight how membership in Prescribed Burn Associations (PBAs) influence land manager decisions regarding the use of prescribed fire by reducing concerns over lack of skills, knowledge and resources. Results emphasize the potential for PBAs to reduce risk concerns regarding the application of prescribed fire and are relevant to management of brush encroached areas. Through PBAs, effective landscape-scale solutions to the brush encroachment problem can be achieved in Texas.

Results from the Mexico case study show how fire stopped effectively being a driving factor on this system decades ago. Socio-political and ecological changes at the national, and international level produced changes in land use disrupting historical fire patterns and contributing to the ecological deterioration of the area. Droughts combined with poor management practices have depleted the fuel needed to carry a fire. Landowners also face safety and legal concerns but in most cases, even if a landowner decided to implement a prescribed burn, an ecological threshold has been crossed and current fine fuel loads (grass) are insufficient to carry a fire that is sufficiently intense to reduce brush cover and restore grassland and savanna ecosystems.

Based on my findings I can conclude that ecologically sound adaptive management and social capital are fundamental components of the livelihoods of landowners and land managers in both case studies. Work and investment that is focused on strengthening this social capital will have the most profound effects in maintaining the integrity of grassland systems at a landscape scale.