There’s a Fire on the Mountain



Bill Armstrong & the Wisdom of Prescribed Burns

Driving along Highway 83 on a midwinter morning, a visitor to the Canyon might be startled to see smoke rising off the grasslands on the perimeter of the property. But don’t worry. We set the fire on purpose.

The H. E. Butt Foundation has set formal prescribed burns every year since 2015. These burns have largely been led by Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist Bill Armstrong, who died September 15 in Kerrville. Through many trips to the Canyon, Bill taught the process to Trey Tull and Kevin Wessels, director and assistant director of Property Planning and Stewardship (PPS). The Foundation has been doing some measure of controlled burning since 2005, according to Wessels and Glenn Echols, the executive director of Property Planing and Stewardship, but Bill formalized the process.

Kevin describes prescribed burns as “the art and science of using fire as a management tool under specific environmental conditions to achieve desired results.”

On the morning of a prescribed burn, Trey and Kevin check the wind speed, temperature, and humidity. Then, a team of 8-10 Foundation employees converges on a 20-acre plot, fill water trucks as a contingency measure, and prepare the drip torches that will ignite and spread the fire. If at any point in this process weather conditions shift and become unfavorable, the team postpones the prescribed burn.

Their caution reflects their respect for fire. In this and many respects, Trey and Kevin will continue Bill Armstrong’s legacy of conservation. They aren’t the only ones: John Standridge, Bill’s pastor, recalls the large number of wildlife biologists present at his memorial in September. Many of them told John, “I do what I do because of Bill.” Out of his quiet depth of care for the land, says John, “he brought life into the lives of others.”

Bill’s Armstrong’s influence on the work of the Property Planning and Stewardship team is unmatched; his contribution is remembered with gratitude as being the “kind of wisdom born of long experience.”

Bill’s influence on the work of the Property Planning and Stewardship team is unmatched. Kevin remembers Bill’s mentorship as being the “kind of wisdom born of long experience.” In the 1970s, Bill pioneered a fresh approach to wildlife management by advocating for the replication of the environmental conditions that existed in Texas prior to the European settlement of the mid-19th century.

Studying tree rings in the plains and hill country of central Texas, Bill discovered that the land historically burned every 2-6 years. As a result, grasses and trees adapted to fire. In some instances, they even need fire to germinate and thrive.

Other native species, like Ashe juniper—commonly called cedar—required fire to prevent overpopulation. Juniper can’t survive without its evergreen needles, which burn quickly in a fire, leaving a field of dead trees to decompose and enrich the soil. Only a tight grouping of juniper trees, called a cedar brake, will survive a fire. Otherwise, Ashe juniper encroaches on the grasslands, creating a monoculture of cedar trees in the Canyon and throughout the hill country.

Grasslands allow much more water to flow into underground springs, compared to thirsty juniper forests. More water supports more plants and animals, contributing to wholeness in the Canyon ecosystem as well as enjoyment for our guests.

People tend to think fire is purely destructive, but Bill Armstrong taught otherwise.

Is the burn plan working? Trey tells the story of an area of grasslands they burned in midwinter several years ago. Immediately after the burn, everything looked dead. Come spring, the field was densely covered with a shock of wild bluebonnets.

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