In the spring of 1995, ecologist Becky Marty, still a new hire at Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota, lit Preachers Grove on fire. It was a bold decision, choosing a popular stand in the heart of the park as the first to burn. But Becky didn’t have anything to hide. Standing with her driptorch, she surveyed the red pines: all around her, trees rose out of the ground in 100-foot bursts of scaly, scarlet bark, their limbs twisted into sinuous patterns by the wind. Looking at them, Becky knew why she was in Itasca, slinging fire across the forest floor. Beginning in Preachers Grove, she thought, was just honest. Forthright.
Becky had been hired the year prior to protect these trees; her project was to intervene in a fading ecosystem in which the towering red pines were becoming isolated relics, disappearing unless planted and carefully tended. She oversaw what is known as a prescribed burn program, the core principle of which is that fire is a natural and beneficial phenomenon for forests like Itasca. Between 1995 and 2003, in an effort to restore the natural conditions that gave birth to the pine stands, Becky prescribed burns across extensive acres, introducing fire to corners of the park that, in her opinion, desperately needed to be burned.
The old-growth pine stands Becky targeted are in no small part why Itasca’s 500,000 annual visitors — having dipped their feet into the headwaters of the Mississippi, the park’s most obvious attraction — come back year after year. They come from cities, prairielands, and farms, from places across the Midwest that have been plowed under, their own trees felled for lumber or swept clean for fields. They come to stand beneath the old pines, to remember what it was like to look up at a living thing and feel wonder and hope and maybe just a little bit of fear.
At the time Becky was hired, some saw prescribed burning as a promising and natural approach to restoring the conditions in which red pines prosper. But fire is also a highly political phenomenon. For a majority of Americans, any type of fire portends devastation: scorched trees, devoured homes, obliterated wildlife, and the potential for lost human life. For land managers, permitting fires to burn (or prescribing them) is often seen as a liability that can lead to dire consequences — more and more so over the decades, as Americans have extended the reach of their development, and the hotter and drier conditions of our changing climate have made fires increasingly tricky to manage.
Eventually, regional support for Becky’s program began to waver. By 2003, certain key decision-makers within the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources were emphasizing other strategies as less volatile alternatives to fire — like mechanical thinning, another way of opening up the forest floor. Funding dried up, and Becky’s program, originally aimed at restoring naturally-regenerating red pine to Itasca, was brought to an abrupt halt.
Yet the ecological conditions for the red pines in Itasca have only worsened, and a fast-changing climate has increased the precarity of their future in the park. In Itasca, at least for a time, fire meant hope. Might it still?
I was twenty the first time I saw wildfire reduce a forest to moonscape. On a mountain in northern Utah, I looked out over dead pines as they washed over ridges and down into gullies, their black bodies like a sea. Smoke billowed in lazy eddies across the ghostly expanse, ash puffing beneath my boots in soft gray blooms. More than fifty homes and outbuildings had been consumed by this fire, elegant log cabins and rustic A-frames reduced to little more than smoldering depressions in the ground. It was the summer of 2012 and I had chosen this. Just a few weeks before, I’d packed up my college dorm room in Iowa and said goodbye to my comfortable life in the Midwest. Through a bash of rain, hail, and snow, I’d driven to Utah to join a crew of wildland firefighters for the five-month fire season. Since I’d first learned about firefighting while working a summer internship in a forest in Arizona, I’d felt compelled to go West and fight fires. To work long, hard hours, entrusting my wellbeing to a close-knit crew. To find myself — or be remade into someone new.
I worked one fire season out West, then two, then three, turning twenty-one, twenty-two and twenty-four on wildfires in Idaho, Oregon, and Utah. It was intoxicating — the roar of flames, the particulars of crew life. During the span of these years, wildfires became intimate for me, as well as grand. They were the crescents of ash I’d shake out of my hair in the morning and the plumes vast enough to block out the sun at midday. They were also fascinatingly complex — a natural phenomenon with the power to obliterate but also renew, once-blackened landscapes bursting to life again with enough time and water and light.
During my rookie season, I worked for Meg, a hard-bitten Montanan who was so good at fire that no one, not even the surliest men, could find fault with her decisions. During the first week of my rookie season, Meg gave me a folder full of information that our crew would apply on the fireline: how to track fuel moisture, assess the defensibility of structures, and record detailed weather logs. Across the cover, Fire’s Role in Nature was bolded in red and yellow. Below, arrows formed a circle through a pine and aspen forest, indicating a perpetual cycle against the backdrop of blue mountains and charred tree trunks. In simple type, the infographic explained fire’s place on the landscape: how it could clear out overgrown underbrush so that new seeds had space to grow; how it killed weak, old, and diseased trees to make room in the canopy for younger generations; how it released nutrients into the soil; how it provided habitat and, usually within a season or two, an abundance of food for animals.
Our crew, known as a wildland fire module, specialized in managing wildfires. Whenever possible, we were deployed to remote forests to track and monitor fires, providing detailed information to decision-makers back at forest headquarters — all while allowing these fires to burn, as they had for centuries. Our type of crew was a rarity within the fire world, and still relatively new. In 1995, after experiencing difficulties managing the Howling Fire in Glacier National Park, the National Park Service founded four “prescribed fire support crews.” In the coming years, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management followed suit, with these crews eventually evolving into today’s wildland fire modules. Compared to engine, helitack, and hotshot crews — groups frequently charged with suppressing fires, full stop — we were a strange beast, often ribbed by other firefighters for watching fires instead of putting them out.
Over the course of my three seasons, my crew worked on as many suppression fires as managed ones; like every rookie, I dug line until my palms blistered, hauled a leaking piss pump until my back was soaked with water, and coldtrailed for hot spots until my hands were black with ash. But I knew that suppression wasn’t the only way to respond to fire — that it might not be the smartest tactic in the long run, even if it’s what firefighters have done in America for the past 100 years.
Established as a state park by the Minnesota legislature in 1891, Itasca sits nestled in the transitional space between three biomes — prairie to the west, boreal forest to the northeast, and broadleaf forests to the south. Its terrain is what geologists refer to as “knob and kettle.” Shaped by ice masses that retreated some 10,000 years ago, the forest is alternately dotted by rising mounds and speckled with over 150 kettle hole lakes. Itasca also supports a unique ecosystem of flora and fauna, including bobcats, snowshoe hares, and the rare headwaters chilostigman caddisfly. The threatened cuckoo flower grows in the park’s swamps, its delicate white petals nodding atop long stalks; the endangered pondweed, with its smooth green leaves, bobs in the park’s lakes. As Mike Kovacovich, Itasca’s park manager from 1989 to 2007, explained to me: “[Itasca is] a whole system that supports a set of living things… different from another ecosystem ten miles away.” And, of course, Itasca State Park is known as the place from which the 2,320-mile-long Mississippi River begins to flow, its headwaters bubbling from Lake Itasca. The park is, in short, an ecological wonder.
The red pines are a key piece of the puzzle. Many of these stands were born in the 18th and 19th centuries following a handful of fires that burned hot and patchy, leaving in their wake newly-bare soil clear of brush and leaf litter, as well as surviving red pines which could act as seed sources. A series of frequent, lighter fires helped maintain ideal conditions for red pines to grow, with many of these fires likely lit by nearby Indigenous communities; the Ojibwe people, who have lived in the Itasca area since the mid-to-late 1700s, used fire to steward the land in many of the Great Lakes’ pineries, promoting blueberry growth and other aims.
Over time, the forest conditions created by fire allowed red pine seedlings to germinate, shouldering into saplings. Because they are a slow-growing, sun-loving species, red pines benefit when fires open gaps in the canopy, killing off young, faster-growing competitors. Red pines’ thick bark protects them from flames, while their resin seals up the wounds they do sustain, preventing fungus and insects from invading. Like children discarding too-small shoes, the trees often drop their lower limbs as they grow — which means that fire, which can snarl up through low branches into the crowns of other trees, cannot get a foothold on old red pines, whose branches are too high for all but the deadliest flames to use as ladders. This quintessential Minnesota tree species hasn’t come to thrive in Itasca in spite of fires, but precisely because of them. When Becky and her firefighters burned acres of forest in Itasca, many of the red pines were already marked by fire scars, wounds revealing their heartwood beneath layers of bark, sapwood, and cambium. These black scars can stretch as high as twenty feet up the trees’ bellies, evidencing years of repeated burns.
By the 20th century, fires in Minnesota, and almost everywhere else in America, came under harsh policies of suppression. The burning practices of Indigenous peoples were made illegal by settlers seeking to “safeguard” valuable timber. Wildfires, sparked in landscapes altered by colonization and logging, had begun to roar through trees discarded haphazardly in slash piles and jackpots, razing forests and towns. In 1910, the Big Burn ravaged three million acres across Montana, Idaho, Washington, and British Columbia. In Minnesota, the Hinckley Fire of 1894 killed 418 people, and the Cloquet Fire of 1918 killed at least 450 people — two of the deadliest wildfires in American history. By 1935, the Forest Service had established the “10am policy,” a nationwide standard which called for the suppression of every fire by that hour on the morning after it was reported. In 1944, Smokey Bear was born — a friendly cartoon animal with a ranger’s hat, a bucket of water, and a simple message: Only YOU can prevent forest fires. Smokey is one of the most powerful tools in the US government’s wildfire prevention campaign, the longest-running public service ad campaign in American history. Under Smokey’s watchful eye, many Americans grew up with the understanding that fire was unequivocally bad and that they, as responsible citizens, had a duty to stop it.
The early 20th century introduction of US suppression policies, the elimination of Indigenous fire practices, and the fragmentation of land by fire breaks such as roads, farms, and towns impacted Itasca deeply, in only a matter of decades. In 1950, a forestry professor teaching in the park made a deal with his students: whoever could find a pine seedling over two feet in height, anywhere in Itasca, would receive an A in the class. “This offer,” two of his colleagues wrote in an article for The Conservation Volunteer, “was never collected.” By the 1970s, Itasca had lost its pine barrens, a fire-dependent ecosystem imperiled not only in the Midwest but worldwide.
On a hot July day in 2019, I biked the road along the edge of Itasca’s wilderness sanctuary, 1,600 acres dominated by old-growth red and white pines. More than 280 native plant species grew among the trees, including various genera of lady’s slipper orchids: flowers with delicate slipper-like bubbles protruding from beneath three white petals, stretched wide like wings. Bumblebees sometimes become trapped in the fine bends of these orchids, and have been known to rip through the soft walls of the slipper in a frustrated bid for freedom — a dramatic rupture that leaves their bodies sticky with pollen, the bees becoming unwitting aids in propagation.
I glided across the blacktop, passing in and out of sunlight. The old pines towered over me as I pedaled, their needles tossed by the occasional gust. In 1995, an infamous windstorm blasted through Itasca, snapping pines in half. More recently, in July 2016, straight-line winds toppled trees, their root balls cratering the park’s roads as they overturned. Park naturalist Connie Cox told the Park Rapids Enterprise: “It sounded like a million marching feet.”
In 2003, Chris Weir-Koetter, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ northwest region resource specialist, was less than supportive of Becky’s program. Chris had a long history with Itasca; as a young woman, one of her first jobs had been in the park, where she’d worked as a naturalist for two years. Chris didn’t see eye to eye with Becky and, as several high-level supporters of the program retired, she wasn’t afraid to say so. Her opposition was not about prescribed fire itself, but about scale: she saw Becky’s large, thousand-acre burns as potentially unmanageable, too easy to burn out of control. Becky’s broad strokes approach was also, in Chris’s view, not targeted enough to be beneficial to the trees. Too much had to align: the right weather conditions, the right intensity of fire, and a strong enough seed source from which new red pines could sprout. Even worse, Chris believed Becky’s big fires were stressing and even unintentionally killing the old-growth red pines — she pointed to a paper which raised the possibility that fire increases the mortality risks for old trees from bark beetle infestations — exactly the opposite of what was needed. (This contrasted sharply with Becky’s own findings; in a study conducted in Itasca with two other biologists, Becky writes that “fire caused no further damage; burned plots had no more pine mortality than unburned plots.”)
Chris preferred the possibility of lighting smaller fires in stands no longer dominated by red pines, with the idea that 40- to 150-acre burns would help prepare the ground and soil for planting and other efforts carried out by park personnel. This strategy, she believed, would allow new stands of red pines to grow without impacting the existing old-growth. Importantly for Chris, prescribed burning was simply one “tool in the toolbox” — one of a handful of techniques that can help prompt pine regeneration, all of which she wanted to pursue in Itasca. Other strategies included bud capping, in which a tree’s sensitive uppermost bud is enclosed protectively in paper; fencing young trees, which deters Itasca’s explosive deer population; and mechanical thinning, which opens up the forest floor to light. And while Becky saw the value in these approaches (and was even carrying some of them out in Itasca), fire was the cornerstone piece of her plan.
Becky hasn’t worked directly for Itasca since 2007; she left four years after the shuttering of her burn program in 2003, but a few months after biking beneath Itasca’s old pines, I called her. Information about her prescribed burn program was scarce, and I wanted to hear, from her, where the program had succeeded — and whether she believed, if reinstated today, it could still save the park’s red pine ecosystem. Becky speaks precisely: when I asked her about the earliest burns, she listed dates and locations as though these prescribed fires occurred just last spring, not 25 years ago.
When she was hired in 1995, Becky began to dig into the park’s ecological history and the research that had been conducted for decades at the Itasca Biological Station. She visited the station regularly to talk with professors and students; she called up ecologists and land managers at Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park and Superior National Forest. “People had done all this work,” Becky told me, referencing fire studies that began in Itasca as early as 1950. “I had to be the catalyst to put this all together.” The more she learned, the more obvious she felt the solution became.
Becky knew she couldn’t control the insects and diseases that threatened Itasca’s red pines, or the notorious winds that toppled the centuries-old trees. But she could set large swathes of the park on fire. If she didn’t, what was already well underway would continue — more and more of the old red pines would die and, without a younger generation to replace them, the ecosystem would eventually transform into an entirely new type of forest. Fire, she told me, was the one ecological process “that humans had truncated, and the one we could bring back.”
To get her program off the ground, Becky first cultivated public opinion. Once a month through the winter of ’94-95, Becky hosted suppers at her house for influential community members — I imagine the jostle of rural Minnesotans as they loosened their heavy coats, doffed their flap-eared caps — to talk about fire and how, by excluding it from the landscape, Itasca was in danger of losing its red pine ecosystem. By hosting these dinners and working with area colleges, Becky built a group of locals supportive of fire. On April 22, 1995 — Earth Day, the first year of her program — Becky and an assemblage of firefighters, following a carefully-plotted prescription, lit Preachers Grove and the surrounding twenty acres on fire. After Preachers Grove, Becky went on to burn Schoolcraft Island — the only island in the middle of Lake Itasca.
That first year, Becky burned 44 acres. In 1998, 1999, and 2000, with the help of collaborating state and federal fire crews, Becky’s group burned more than 3,000 acres annually. By 2002, they had burned over 10,000 acres, more than one-quarter of the park. Attempting to beat back vigorous undergrowth, they burned 1,200 of these acres twice and over 5,000 acres three times. And by creating a collaborative workforce with an experienced core of leaders, Becky even managed to do it relatively cheaply, costing the park less than twenty dollars for each acre burned.
But just as her program flourished with external support, it withered without it. Eight years after first burning Preachers Grove, Becky’s prescribed fire program was shuttered (“they said ‘no can do,’” Becky recalled). After months of planning — writing a fire prescription, prepping acres for burning, coordinating with state and federal firefighters — Becky was denied funding by key Department of Natural Resources managers who didn’t support this type of fire in Itasca, with these funds dispensed to other programs within the state park system. Without the support, Becky’s program collapsed.
When I talked to Becky, her voice was vital and bright. She’s still as fiercely committed to large-scale prescribed fire in Itasca as she was when she lit that first burn in Preachers Grove. “My vision now is no different than it was when I worked for the park,” she told me. “I see [fire] as the only way that forest is going to survive.”
After our conversation, I came across a photo of her online. In the picture, Becky’s mouth is open in a subtle smile, her dark hair pulled back from her face, keen eyes visible behind round wire frames. She looks just like she sounds — confident, thorough, a woman who has carved a place for herself in the world of fire.
“I think like a tree,” Becky told me. When she’d lit her burns in Itasca in the ’90s and early 2000s, she was operating on an ecological timeframe, which meant results, when they came, would be incremental, with larger outcomes obvious only after twenty, fifty, or even one hundred years — long time spans for humans, perhaps, but not for pines. Eventually, after a frequent series of burns had beaten back the abundant overgrowth, Becky imagined setting large landscape burns in which fire would be allowed to act in more natural ways. Chris’s alternative to this — intensely managing small sections of land — is costly, labor-intensive, and practically impossible to implement across Itasca’s thousands of acres, as Becky sees it. One day, Becky had hoped to “move beyond total control, to be able to put the fire there and let it do what it’s going to do.” It would have been a partial restoration of the way the Great Lakes Ojibwe had used fire, centuries before a whole slew of settlers arrived, clamoring at the shores of Lake Itasca.
Since the shuttering of Becky’s program 18 years ago, just seven acres have been burned in Itasca using prescribed fire. Management of the park’s red pines has focused on the artificial techniques that Chris emphasized — putting seeds in the ground, opening up the canopy with mechanical thinning, and protecting young growth from deer by bud capping and erecting exclosures. In some cases, these more interventionist methods have yielded visible results quickly. And yet, to read through ongoing management strategies and ideas, it’s clear that Becky and Chris agree about one thing: in some form, at some scale, Itasca still needs fire.
Nearly two years after my first visit, I return to Itasca in July 2021. I again bike the swooping road that borders the wilderness sanctuary, stopping to touch the plated bark of the biggest red pines. On the Bohall Trail, a short path that pushes half a mile into the wilderness, I look for signs of Becky’s burns, which had once thinned the thick undergrowth. Today, eighteen years after Becky’s last prescribed fire was lit, the undergrowth is thick again, an impenetrable wall of green. At the end of the trail, an interpretive sign asks: What happened to six million acres of red pine?
The next day, I swim in Lake Itasca. I push out into the clear water, lifting my head. To the left, I can see the place where the lake narrows, the spot where the Mississippi begins as a quiet, blue burbling. To the right, I see the lake’s only island, where Becky lit one of her earliest burns. A scattering of loons — one of the oldest bird families in America, estimated to have existed nearly 35 million years ago — settle in the low waves around me, all red eyes and eerie call.
I slowly pull my body across a mile of open water, remembering my fire days and the way flames glow against a heavy wrap of smoke. It must have once looked like that in Itasca. As I reach the shallows around Schoolcraft Island, where wild rice grows, I turn to the far shore. Red and white pines break above the canopy, crowns rippling in the wind.