Francis "Jack" Putz, professor of botany, will use the funds from the Williams Term Professorship to burn Florida forests. Yes, that's right - to burn forests. But unlike arsonists whose intent is to destroy, Putz has the altruistic motive of enhancing the growth of the state's indigenous vegetation.
"This money will help support burning forests, which may sound like a crazy thing to do, but we're trying to restore a natural process," he said. "These ecosystems need fire to remain healthy, and burning patches of up to thousands of acres of forest can have great ecological benefits."
Landscape fragmentation - dividing up Florida's forests for commercial development and private property - makes it unlikely that natural fires will occur, and a process necessary for the maintenance of ecosystems is thus impeded. Putz and other conservationists carry out controlled fires to mimic what would have occurred naturally.
"It gets increasingly hard to maintain ecosystem processes in these small forest fragments," he said. "Fire is a major natural process that shapes these ecosystems, but as the landscape gets increasingly fragmented, it gets harder and harder to implement a controlled burning regime."
In order to ensure proper ecosystem maintenance, Putz also will work to develop the necessary policies to encourage landowners and the state to manage natural areas.
"For example, we need to facilitate the use of fires as a land management tool," he said. "It's important we actively manage our natural areas: natural ecosystems can be lost through omission of fire or commission of bulldozers."
In addition to using fire as a way to keep Florida's ecosystems working efficiently, Putz is studying the deleterious effects of exotic species, like Cogongrass and tallow trees, on forests. When exotic species are introduced into the state's natural environments, they often inhibit the growth of indigenous plants. As a result, they, too, need to be controlled to protect Florida's ecosystems.
"We need policies to prevent ecosystem domination by exotic species," he said. "Natural area managers would benefit if invasive exotic species were legally treated as a form of pollution or nuisance."
Through fire management and exotic species prevention, Putz is confident that the state can protect Florida's forests.
"I think what's most exciting to me, and to many of my students, is the diversity of life and the importance of maintaining that diversity," he said. "It's all about hands-on conservation."