John T. Curtis Award Winner – Tom Wise

Tom Wise has a Burning Passion for Restoring Native Species

Tom Wise has been implementing prescribed fires for The Nature Conservancy for three decades. During that time he has significantly influenced and educated others about the important role of fire in ecological restoration.

His first burn was at the Spring Green Preserve in 1984, at a time when few people were applying fire to the landscape as a management tool. Since then, Tom has led more than 400 burns on property owned by The Nature Conservancy, The Prairie Enthusiasts, Ice Age Trail and Dane County.

Tom was hooked on prescribed fire from the beginning, and early on changed people’s thoughts about how and where fire could be used. He realized that not only small isolated prairies needed fire, but that larger areas could be safely and efficiently burned using mechanized equipment, resulting in an exponential ecological benefit.

Through his experiences and observations, Tom developed important concepts that inform today’s prescribed fire regimes throughout southern Wisconsin. He established that in addition to prairies, wetlands, oak woodlands, and barrens also were dependent on fire; and that fire should be used repeatedly and purposefully over many years to generate the desired results.

Tom has used his time on prescribed burns to observe the subtleties of fire behavior and intensity, changes due to weather conditions and, most importantly, the impacts those things have on meeting desired fire effects.

During the 1990s, as interest in implementing burns was increasing among private land owners, Tom was a key instructor and organizer of annual statewide burn workshops. Many volunteers were trained and they went on to apply prescribed fire on their properties. Hundreds of people in Wisconsin have worked on a burn that Tom has led, planned or designed. He has led burns on dozens of State Natural Areas, on hundreds of acres of private lands and on his property where he has demonstrated the positive impacts of repeated low-intensity burns in oak woodlands.

To quote Hannah Spaul, Wisconsin Nature Conservancy Director of Land Management, in her nomination of Thomas Wise for this award: “Tom’s contributions to prescribed fire in Wisconsin can be seen at state treasures such as Spring Green Prairie, Quincy Bluff, Lulu Lake, along the Ice Age Trail, Dane County parks and his own oak woods that he has been diligently burning for more than 25 years.

“Aside from assisting with prescribed burn classes and contributing to field trips, Tom has left significant visible impacts on the landscape and has positively impacted the ecological diversity and quality of natural communities throughout the state.

“He has brought people together who may not have otherwise fully appreciated the value of their lands to conservation. We all have a great deal to be grateful for when we consider the contributions made and the trails blazed by conservation leaders like Tom.”