One-on-One with Mike Black, NBCI

One-on-One with Mike Black, NBCI

This is the first in a series of interviews of longleaf leaders from across the range who, along with their organizations, are making uniquely important contributions to the America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative. Mike Black is the Forestry Coordinator for the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) and in October 2013 will take the reins as the Chair of the Longleaf Partnership Council.

I caught up with Mike recently just after he left his home in Jasper, Tennessee on a long drive to Arkansas for a shortleaf meeting (more on his shortleaf interests in just a moment).  Finding Mike traveling and working out of his truck came as no surprise since his responsibilities for Bobwhite restoration extend across 25 states, or as he says, half the country. "No, I'm not wearing my field boots so much anymore," said Mike, alluding to his past experience as an industrial forester for Bowater, a self-employed consulting forester and a wildlife manager for the Department of Defense.

While Mike's abiding interest is forest management for wildlife, the truth of the matter is that he is always gravitated toward the policy aspects of his chosen field. Whether as past chair of the Tennessee Forestry Commission or as a leader with the Tennessee Conservation League (now Tennessee Wildlife Federation), Mike sees the challenges to habitat restoration largely as involving “people, politics and money,” not only wildlife biology. "We know all about how to create forest habitat for bobwhite quail,” he says, adding, "basically, just get enough sunlight and fire on the ground."

Given his interest in the policy and people side of wildlife management, Mike was eager to get involved in the early organizational meetings of the Longleaf Partnership Council, and has stayed actively involved. "The Council was where the movers and shakers in the longleaf community came together so that was where I knew I needed to be," he said.   Little did he know, that just three years later he'd be preparing to lead the group!

Back at NBCI, Mike claims to have "25 supervisors," referring to the representatives of the 25 state wildlife agencies that support his work and comprise the National Bobwhite Technical Committee that oversees Bobwhite restoration in the various states.  Of course, Mike sees his efforts in a much broader context, benefiting not only Bobwhite but also a number of other grassland birds and other animals that share the same habitat. “As the game species, quail is the poster child, but the wildlife benefits go far beyond that,” he said.  Accordingly the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation also supports Mike's work through its Southeast Grassland Birds Keystone Initiative.

In addition to his leadership role in America's Longleaf, Mike has also been an early promoter of a range wide effort to restore shortleaf pine.  Why all the emphasis on forest habitat, and on pine in particular?  In developing its overarching strategy in 2002, NBCI concluded that the most feasible way to restore Bobwhite was by increasing savanna and woodland forest habitat, in part because traditional agricultural lands were being so rapidly developed. And, pine forests are where the necessary habitat conditions (sunlight and fire on the ground, remember?) can be readily achieved through active management.  Pressed to identify the single greatest conservation challenge in his work, Mike immediately says "hands-down, it's getting enough fire on the landscape.  Without fire, we're fighting Mother Nature and succession and we all know that's an uphill battle.”

Despite the challenges ahead, Mike Black now operates from a unique vantage point--at the intersection of three ambitious, landscape-level restoration efforts for Bobwhite and grassland birds, for longleaf and for shortleaf.   He may not need his field boots so much anymore, but he certainly is shouldering plenty of leadership responsibilities for southern pine forests and the wildlife that depends on them.

Interviewed by Lark Hayes, July 2013.