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Wildlife Service, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, The Longleaf Alliance, and the Orianne Society. He served 14 years on the Georgia Department of Natural Resources board, a term on the Longleaf Partnership Council, and six years on the USDA, Farm Service Agency, Georgia State Committee. He’s a past chairman of The Longleaf A lliance, and spent six years on the Partners for Conservation board.
“Planting longleaf is the closest to immor tality that I will achieve,” he says. “I would rather be remembered by family and friends as a good steward of the land than CDs in a bank.”
Thompson admits that not everyone can afford to go all-in on longleaf and approach forest ownership as much as advocacy and labor of love as they do business. His good friend and fellow longleaf advocate Bill Owen, who nominated him for the award, has transformed his 1,850 family acres in Virginia to longleaf, though Owen has no heirs and is retired from an unrelated career. Thompson, who says he owns or manages “ several thousand” acres in Georgia, refers to his wife Pam as his “backup foundation,” having started two successf ul businesses. “I’m one of her employees,” Thompson says. “ She enables me to do what I enjoy doing.”
That means Thompson can devote his full attention to longleaf, which due to his efforts and those of others, has shifted the perception of longleaf for many forest landowners over the last decade from a no-way-never proposition to an attractive possibility.
That’s because state and federal grants, including one offered via the Forest Landowners A ssociation, provide landowners the funding to plant, burn, and manage longleaf. Because landowners have no recourse if a disaster destroys their forests, at least until Congress passes the Disaster Reforestation Act, longleaf looks attractive because of its more fire and storm-resistant characteristics. The market for longleaf pine straw can command up to $300 an acre, and longleaf provides valuable wildlife habitat.
Then there’s the fun you can have playing with fire. Since longleaf requires frequent burning, landowners find it costeffective, more rewarding, and most enjoyable to do it themselves. When the Thompsons’ children, son Reese II and daughter Audrey, were at the University of Georgia, they ’d bring their suburban-raised friends to their property in W heeler County, about 180 miles southeast of Atlanta. The older Reese would give the wide-eyed newcomers drip torches and tell them to “walk that way and create fire until I tell you to stop.”
Thompson is such a fire enthusiast that he believes we should rethink the traditional climate of heaven and hell. “My idea of heaven is a cool winter day, and I’m burning wiregrass and longleaf,” he says. “I like to think of myself as an artist who creates landscapes with fire.” Like the friends of Thompson’s children, who were taught to avoid fire, most people think of forest fire mostly as the annual infernos that rage out west, partly because of poor public forest management. Since1947,A mericans have listened to Smokey Bear stress that “only YOU can prevent forest fires.” The well-intentioned campaign aimed at getting people to douse campfires and stop tossing cigarettes from cars instead created the public perception that any forest burning was terrible.
“Everyone has v isions of Bambi being burned, butnotal lfirei sbad,” Thompson said. “Fire i s nature’s way of cleansing and recycling the forest, which will happen sooner or later. Under good conditions, you can make a fire do what you want.”
Thompson was pondering how to change the perception of fire one day while riding in his Whitfield planter, which he uses to plant 605 longleaf seedlings an acre. He hit a stump, struck his head on the vehicle’s roof, and was inspired to create Burner Bob, the prescribed fire advocate’s answer to Smokey Bear.
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Unlike a bear, a bobwhite quail is a warm, fuzzy creature that responds well to fire. Thompson traveled to Atlanta to the offices of the International Mascot Corporation, which has produced thousands of iconic fuzzy costumes for sports teams and companies. The result was the smiling, 8-foot, Burner Bob, a “cool dude with a hot message” that the forests need fire to survive. Burner Bob shows how to burn safely. (Burner Bob is a registered trademark and the “cool dude with a hot message” a registered slogan.)
The Burner Bob character accompanies Thompson and others to conservation events and fire festivals. The mascot is especially popular at school presentations. There are educational Burner Bob videos, cartoons, coloring books, and other materials geared to “spread the flame.” Though Thompson spent considerable funds on the mascot costume and collaterals, he licensed it for $1 to The Longleaf Alliance and makes no money off Bob.
“Bob helps educate children that not all fire is bad and that it needs to be conducted by experienced people in favorable conditions when permitted,” Thompson says. “You have to start with the children to start turning the ship of perception around, but it’s a long process.”
Thompson has conducted a similar public relations campaign for the indigo snake, though without the fuzzy costume, and geared more toward addressing the inconsistencies in endangered species listings. The muscular, blue-black, non-venomous snake, the longest native North American species at eight-plus feet, eats rattlesnakes and cottonmouths. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the indigo snake as a threatened species in 1978.
Thompson notes that despite the indigo snake listing, there’s never been logging restrictions, unlike the policy surrounding the black pine snake. He’s addressed it with the USFWS.
“I’d never meet anyone from Fish and Wildlife until 15 years ago; I thought of them as cousins of the IRS,” Thompson said. “Now I have a lot of good friends there. But I told them, ‘You dropped the ball on the black pine snake.’ We’re blessed with indigo snakes, log around them, and nobody has ever said, ‘You can’t do this’ because you have indigo snakes, even though it’s been federally listed since 1978. It’s a double standard, and I don’t know what Fish and Wildlife’s motive was with the black pine snake.”
As head of FLA, Jones notes that such government bureaucracy and inconsistent application of endangered species policy is why many landowners understandably shy away from talking about endangered species on their land. Thompson, meanwhile, creates public relations campaigns about threatened species such as indigo snakes, gopher tortoises, and spotted turtles co-existing within best-practices forest management.
“Reese has not been afraid to talk about what’s on his property,” Jones says. “He doesn’t manage in fear of what might happen. He’s proactive when he says, ‘I think we can manage with these things and make them a value-add to the property.’ He can strike a balance between having regulated species and not having adverse relationships with regulators.”
Owen, the Virginia longleaf grower, calls Thompson a “practical conservationist” who walks the line between ecosystem and forest business. “Reese is committed to the mission of protecting, enhancing, and restoring the longleaf ecosystem entrusted to him while maintaining a solid investment in forestry and forest products for the future,” Owen says.
Jones says he can envision a time when the government and private businesses will provide credits to landowners for managing for endangered species, not unlike mitigation or carbon credits. “Land might become more valuable the more those species use it,” Jones said. “Reese could prove to be ahead of his time.”
Thompson says he wants to improve that future in other ways. He enjoys planting bald cypress in wet areas, knowing that someone will stumble upon them 50 years from now and know that someone planted it.
“Owning land is a discipline that keeps me grounded,” he says. “Continuing to add to the footprint keeps me working and prevents me from being tempted by detrimental activities. My mission is to protect, restore, and enhance what has been entrusted to me while serving as a good role model for the next generation.”
Pete Williams is the editor of Forest Landowner magazine, official publication of the Forest Landowners Association. For membership information, please visit forestlandowners.com.