Tim Simmons: Conservation Ecologist with a Passion for Fire

April 26, 2017 will mark the 30th anniversary of habitat burns in Massachusetts. Tim Simmons, a restoration ecologist recently retired from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, had a lot to do with that first habitat burn and the decades of ecological fire since. In the densely-populated North Atlantic region, human decisions and societal norms can be seen as a significant driver of fire in our landscape. Tim Simmons has played an immense role in helping shape Massachusetts’ fire-adapted landscape - including both natural and human communities - for the better.

Tim’s passion for fire science was ignited in the 1980s while he was conducting surveys for imperiled plant and animal species. Tim observed a pattern: Some of the most imperiled species were associated with fire-influenced habitats. Right then, Tim resolved to learn as much as he could about conducting prescribed fires and the ecological effects of fire. He set about doing just that, and in doing so, helped lead the region into a new era of prescribed fire to improve wildlife habitat.

“Looking back on my 30 or so years working with him,” says Dr. Bill Patterson, emeritus professor from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, “I see Tim as a natural historian who knows at least a little bit (and sometimes a lot) about more different aspects of natural history than just about anyone with whom I have worked with in the field. And, he is willing to consider any reasonable management protocol to benefit a population or species, while at the same time recognizing the possible benefits and risks to other species and populations.”

This open-minded approach to habitat management was not without controversy, and the many challenges of returning ecological fire to the landscape could fill a book. Through every adventure or misadventure, “Tim was always one who was not swayed by the many obstacles we faced in those early days of getting fire back on the landscape,” says Caren Caljouw, habitat biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “He helped pave the way for the successful use of prescribed fire in a responsible manner in Massachusetts and throughout New England.”

Tim has a passion for pitch pine-scrub oak barrens and all their embedded habitats including heathlands, grasslands, savannas and coastal plain ponds and wetlands. As Tim has described, “No two sites are the same, they’ve all had different fire and land use histories, support similar biotas, are under duress from a variety of sources, and are way more complex than we can imagine.” To help deepen regional knowledge and interest in such ecosystems, Tim supported the development of programs that sponsored Master’s degree students in answering research questions and seeing their results applied to ongoing habitat management. As the regional fire manager for The Nature Conservancy’s New England region, Tim was involved in such work at many sites and calls the long-term results “striking” and “gratifying.” The impact of such work has multiplied: “Many of the results generated here in Massachusetts were exported to other states struggling with the same issues.”

The Tim Simmons approach to conservation ecology “requires patience, flexibility, and ingenuity; and thinking in ‘nature's time’ rather than ‘human time,’” says Dr. Patterson, “While working with him at Montague, I came to appreciate that the best management scheme is one that is implemented widely, but in small increments, and in every possible season of the annual cycle of nature.” Tim’s management approach also embraces a multitude of disciplines; he has been described by his colleagues as a skillful land manager, naturalist, entomologist, and fire ecologist, and as a fire practitioner with extensive knowledge of fire behavior, fire effects, and conservation biology. “I recall many days in the field where I would excitedly point out a plant or plant community’s response to fire, and Tim would not only acknowledge that but would enthusiastically expand upon that observation by sharing his understanding of the benefits of fire to a multitude of species, plants and animals, and the significance of their inter-relationships in our natural world,” says Caren, “He is always willing to share that knowledge with others.”    

This willingness to share knowledge is fundamental to the Tim Simmons approach to conservation ecology in the human dimension. Tim has given countless presentations throughout his career and has empowered planning boards, fire departments, students, and conservation-minded citizens with an increased understanding of fire ecology in the pine barrens ecosystem. Tim teaches people as naturally as he studies complex ecosystems. His passion for fire ecology is contagious, stimulating new ways of thinking in those around him. Because of this inspiring commitment, says Caren, “his contributions to prescribed fire and biodiversity conservation are tremendous.”

Tim has also been a regular instructor in a series of professional trainings on the planning and implementation of prescribed fire, hosted at the Massachusetts Army National Guard training facility with numerous partners on Cape Cod. Joel Carlson, principal with Northeast Forest and Fire Management, LLC, says, “Tim’s participation in wildland fire trainings in Massachusetts over the years has been of great benefit to not only the students but also his co-instructors. His wealth of knowledge related to fire ecology and prescribed fire operations has always flowed freely and in an expert manner in his usual soft spoken way. By sharing his knowledge, Tim reminds us all why we should be committed to the fire management New England’s pyrophilic natural communities.”

Members of the Southeastern Massachusetts Pine Barrens Alliance (SEMPBA) could not be more appreciative of Tim’s work in the coastal Massachusetts pine barrens landscape. A 1998 poster that hangs on the walls of the SEMPBA office, Treasures of Our Natural Heritage Coastal Plain Ponds of Southeastern Massachusetts, beautifully combines art and environment to portray this imperiled ecosystem. SEMPBA’s Sharl Heller and Frank Mand believe that this highly-effective educational illustration, which Tim helped promote, is missing only one critical element - Tim Simmons himself.

“Tim understands the importance of engaging the public in conservation,” write Sharl and Frank. Tim’s active engagement in SEMPBA, an all–volunteer organization of people concerned about the loss of globally rare habitat, was crucial in the recent formation of the Pine Barrens Regional Conservation Partnership. As Sharl and Frank have summarized, “Tim’s dedication to the preservation of the southeastern Massachusetts landscape, coupled with his ability to explain complex ecosystems to lay people, has simultaneously educated and inspired us to keep moving forward against huge challenges. In the face of continuing and increasing pressure to develop these precious resources, we need more Tims, Tim Times Two-Hundred.”

Tim himself sees opportunities to continue learning about fire. “When burning was a novelty instead of a well-established management practice thirty years ago, there was much more quantitative monitoring occurring,” Tim says, “One goal of every burn should be: what do we want to learn from this burn?” Tim also highlights the need to educate regulators responsible for air quality as smoke becomes increasingly important as an issue. “We need research to quantify prescribed fire emissions and their contribution to air quality impacts and emissions trade off models to address these perceptions and reverse the trend to try to reduce prescribed burning because we really need to be doing much, much more if the declining habitats and their dependent species are going to be conserved.”

As Dr. Patterson has learned, “Conflicts arise. Nothing is perfect. But doing nothing is often worse than doing something, so long as you do not do "something" to *everything* all at once! I firmly believe in this management approach, and I do not think I would have come that appreciation had it not been for the opportunity to work with people like Tim!”

When asked what advice he would share with the next generation of fire scientists and managers, Tim shared the following: “Like the proverbial hammer wielder to whom all problems are nails, fire practitioners must understand that fire is a complex process and it interacts with many other variables and the answer to all conservation questions is not always a drip torch.” If we follow the example of Tim Simmons, we will continue learning about and thoughtfully stewarding these complex, fire-adapted ecosystems and the communities that call them “home.”

This article was written by Amanda Mahaffey with significant contributions from Tim Simmons, Bill Patterson, Caren Caljouw, Sharl Heller, Joel Carlson, and Frank Mand.