By Mr. Mike Bowers (Leonard Wood)June 2, 2016
Steve Thurman must serve and protect the occupants of three-quarters of Fort Leonard Wood's approximately 63,000 acres. His weapons are education and the experience of more than 24 years as the installation's forester.
His biggest challenges are fire and training that can destroy or disturb natural habitats. Of the post's total acreage, more than 53,000 are used for training. Additionally, there are Family housing and camping areas that can pose fire hazards.
"Fire prevention is a big part of my job," Thurman said. "I am in charge of prescribed burning. I am also working on an installation wild-land fire plan."
Thurman, a southwest Missouri native, said the wild-land plan encompasses prescribed burning and preventing and fighting wildfires. He said such a plan is especially useful on ranges, where tracer ammunition is used.
"There (at particular ranges), we have firebreaks to help contain fires and conduct prescribed burning to minimize the chance of any fire issues," Thurman said.
According to the University of Missouri-Columbia graduate with a master's in forestry, part of his job is to regulate fire-starting activities, based on the current fire danger. "I still have to deal with wildfires," Thurman said, "even though the Fort Leonard Wood Fire Department does the fighting part."
A byproduct of thinning pine plantations is timber sales, he said, and such forest management intermingles with protecting the forest's animals. Among those is an endangered bat.
"Our forests provide a habitat for a threatened bat species," Thurman said. "Work is beginning soon that will help determine how to incorporate such actions as forest management into helping those species survive and thrive."
As one of only 100 U.S. Army foresters, Thurman said his job indirectly aids environmental protection.
"Air and water are essential to human existence," he said. "In forested areas, trees provide the primary filter for the rain that enters streams and groundwater, they take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store that carbon for decades or centuries, and they give off oxygen."
Thurman said some sensitive species live part of the year in the forest or live in the streams.
"The forest helps filter the water," he added. "You could say that, by me helping protect the forest, I help protect the environment."
Assigned to the Directorate of Public Works Natural Resources Branch, Thurman isn't always dealing with the forest or its animal and human inhabitants.
"We're a small organization, and we have to sometimes help each other out," Thurman said. "So besides working in the forest, I may help with fisheries or wildlife projects. Still, there is unfortunately a whole lot more time spent behind a computer than out hugging trees."
One of Thurman's responsibilities is managing firewood cutting on the installation, and he said there are a lot of misconceptions about the much-sought-after program.
He explained that post trees, whether standing or fallen, are government property. A process exists to transfer ownership to a private entity.
According to Thurman, a standing tree is attached to the earth and therefore considered real property. So, selling trees as standing timber can be an involved process that is covered by multiple regulations.
"Once the tree is on the ground, it is a 'forest product' and simpler to sell," Thurman said. "We sell firewood permits for some of that on-the-ground wood, when it is available and safely accessible."
He said permits have varying costs and cutting limits, however, "we currently have a lot more demand than we have wood available to cut."
Whether managing tree cutting or range fires, Thurman said his worst days are "when it's beautiful outside and he's stuck inside." He said that is probably universally true for all natural resource managers.
"A good day is any day spent out in nature away from everything and everyone," Thurman said. "My best days are when I get to see something I have never seen before, or learn some new, cool thing about nature from someone else, or just come across a sight that convinces me God was there (yes, even on military installations)."
Thurman said the Army rates his success on a form, but he, and other natural resource managers, obtain personal success based on the condition of the resource.
"It may take years or decades for my work to show up in the forest," Thurman explained. "I can see results of work by my predecessor that he never got to see."
Ironically, Thurman said prescribed burning gets quick results on the success of his actions.
"In one day, we can change a firing range from a fire hazard to fire safe. We can also go back in the summer and look at the incredible transformation of burned areas from brown to black, to loaded with prairie wildflowers and grasses," he said.