Ann Camp: Afire for teaching

Dr. Ann Camp recently retired from the faculty of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where she ignited a passion for fire in countless students and colleagues. NAFSE caught up with Ann to hear more of her story and to better understand the legacy of her teaching in fire science in the Northeast.

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Ann’s first fell in love with fire while working in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, where she became fascinated by the way fires influenced this ecosystem. Her passion for fire science was truly ignited during a Fire Ecology course at the University of Washington. Ann went on to study the work of Dr. Jim Agee, Dr. Thomas Ledig, Dr. Murray F. Buell, Dr. William S. Cooper, Dr. Benjamin Stout, Dr. Hugh Raup, and others who influenced the way we understand the role of fire, fire exclusion, deer, anthropogenic ignitions, and forest succession today.

Ann began fueling the fire in the ecology community (metaphorically speaking, of course) as a USDA Forest Service researcher and doctoral candidate. With the listing of the Spotted Owl as an endangered species, forests needed to be managed to include their preferred habitat (late successional) which was vulnerable due to the fuel ladders within this habitat structure. Ann’s work provided guidelines on where fire could be sustainably incorporated within a fire-regulated landscape. “Before my PhD came out in the peer-reviewed literature, I photocopied literally hundreds of copies of my dissertation as news of my work spread throughout the Inland Western U.S. and Canada,” said Ann, “My work on late-successional fire refugia in fire-regulated landscapes was rewarding in that many public and private forests incorporated my findings into their management plans.” 

While Ann loves low-elevation ponderosa pine forests in the Pacific Northwest, the New Jersey Pine Barrens are another favorite ecosystem. “I love canoeing the small rivers in southern NJ (how I spent my undergraduate weekends when I wasn’t rock-climbing!). I love the upland forests dominated by pines and oaks and the Atlantic white cedar swamps and bogs,” says Ann, “A wild and fascinating place - especially in the 1960s and 70s.” Such perceptions helped shape Ann’s fascination with the changing role of fire in ecosystems. Ann reminds us that “Forestry and Fire Science are, above all, social sciences because people care about forests and have opinions about their management. You may be the best scientist in the world, but if you can’t speak to the concerns of the public, you will get nowhere in having your science findings implemented on the ground. The biophysical science part is the easy bit - it’s the human dimensions of land management that are difficult, and can often change abruptly. One escaped fire that causes a civilian fatality means that you might lose that tool for a long time. ”

Ann sees such challenges for fire scientists and managers in our region. “While the North Atlantic region has several kinds of ecosystems (oak savannah, pine barrens, even meadows) that depend on fire, its use is hindered by dense populations, critical transportation infrastructure, and issues of air quality. And a public that still often sees fire as undesirable and not the best tool for restoration. Re-introducing and keeping fire as a part of these ecosystems will only get more difficult.” To help address these challenges, Ann has dedicated her teaching career to infusing knowledge, curiosity, and a passion for fire in a generation of land managers, scientists, and environmental leaders. In the words of Erin Lane, co-founder and coordinator of the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange, “Ann’s skills are exceptional, but her willingness to get outside and experience science is what sets her apart. The Northeast is fortunate to have benefited from Ann Camp’s vast knowledge, unique expertise, varied abilities, mentoring skills, teaching talents, and most importantly, unsurpassed dedication to growing future leaders.” 

At the Yale Forestry School, Ann took students to the southeastern longleaf pine forests on the annual southern forestry field trip. During these trips, Ann viewed each day as an adventure and shared her excitement for silviculture, harvesting, prescribed fire, forest health, forest administration, and other forestry issues; visited a range of mills; and explored southern culture, history, and cuisine with her students. (Ann’s co-instructor for many of these trips, Mike Ferrucci, noted that Ann told many a skeptical student that “in the South, pork is actually a vegetable.”) Knowing that classroom learning should be leavened with some practical experience, Ann found many places to visit where the local managers would let her and the students “light the woods on fire,” as prescribed burning is sometimes called. As her colleague described, “Of course after all the students had their turn, Ann would always end up with the drip torch or, even better, the tool that launches the flaming ping-pong balls. Yes, my colleague is a fire-bug!”

Many cohorts of Ann’s students credit her courses as the most important in preparing them for their management careers. Ann has high standards for her students and has been known to say, “If I give you an easy exam where you memorize facts, that won’t help you at all in the real world. When you get out of here, you will have to solve messy ecological and restoration problems. I am training you to think holistically so you can go attack the current issues facing forestry today.” These same frustrated students always return to tell her how much they appreciate what they learned in her classes. Not just the content, but the methods. In the words of Marlyse Duguid, lecturer and associate research scientist at Yale, “Ann is a remarkable scholar, but is incredibly grounded. Forestry and field ecology are messy disciplines. Ann trains her students to use the tools available, but to think critically and improve current knowledge.” As one former student articulated, Ann’s Fire Science and Policy class “pushed me to look beyond facts and think more critically about how and why society manages fire, a change that inspired me to work directly with land managers to seek answers to the many challenges faced by changing fire regimes in the United States.”

Beyond teaching, Ann’s greatest legacy to future fire scientists and managers is her incomparable mentorship. In Erin Lane’s first phone conversation with her future mentor, Ann said, “I have 100 students and I have time for you, too!” Jim Cronan, research forester with the USDA Forest Service, points to graduate research under Ann’s guidance that shaped his career in fire behavior. In Jim’s words, “Ann supported my efforts to propose a large research project with multiple academic and land management partners, an endeavor I never would have considered in my wildest graduate school dreams. It was her positive, anything-is-possible attitude that inspired me to think big and push myself hard. It was her practical knowledge of the bureaucratic labyrinth of rules and policies that made it possible to actually complete the work correctly. Her ability to help me realize my potential has been unmatched by anyone else I have worked with. I imagine that I am not alone in this regard, and there is no doubt in my mind that Ann’s overwhelming commitment to her students has created a large cadre of passionate natural resource professionals across the world whose level of achievement and self-confidence was given a big boost by Ann.” As Maryse said, “Once Ann is your mentor, you have gained a life-long ally and confidant.”

Among her achievements, Ann Camp has found teaching and mentoring the next generation of forestry and fire professionals extremely rewarding. As Mike Ferrucci describes Ann, “What I’ve learned from my friend and colleague can’t all fit into this note. But I’ll try to summarize: listen, observe, take pictures, think critically, and show your enthusiasm for learning and exploring, and your students and colleagues will prize their time with you.” The North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange is grateful to have Ann Camp’s legacy of science and teaching in our landscape.

This article was written by Amanda Mahaffey with significant contributions from Erin Lane, Marlyse Duguid, Jim Cronan,  and Mike Ferrucci.