The longleaf pine ecosystem in the United States has shrunk from 90 million acres to just 3.4 million over time. Consequently, nearly thirty animal species that rely on it for habitat are now endangered or threatened.
Much like rain forests must be sustained by rain, longleaf pine is a “fire forest.” Fire has a renewing quality for longleaf pine trees and the plants and animals that call the longleaf pine forests home. Fire removes debris and fuels, allowing native plants to regenerate and re-sprout with vigorous new growth. Fire also controls plants that may invade the longleaf pine forests.
To reverse the degradation of longleaf pine forests, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is partnering with the Student Conservation Association and US Forest Service to recruit and train the “fire starters of tomorrow.” The Fire Mentoring Program provides controlled burn training, on-the-job experience, and career opportunities for underserved youth.
A few years ago, if you had asked Allan Overstreet what he wanted to do with his life, he probably would have answered something along the lines of “stay out of prison.” He was unemployed, with no high-school diploma and nowhere to live.
“Nobody cared if I went to school,” he said. “My dad was in and out of rehab. My mom had her own problems and had enough to do just trying to pay the bills.” Allan’s grandmother finally agreed to take him in but only on one condition: he had to sign up with Job Corps.
Allan completed the Fire Mentoring Program in Alabama, and within a month, received a well-paid, full-time job with Wildland Restoration International, a non-profit conservation organization focused on fire management, where he still works today. He has also served on a wildfire suppression crew in California. When people recognize Allan’s uniform, they approach him on the street to thank him for the work he is doing.
Photo © The Nature Conservancy.