Happy birthday to Herbert Stoddard Sr.! Raised in a working-class family, he had no formal education beyond primary school. Yet he went on to become recognized as the “father” of wildlife management and a pioneer in the emerging field of fire ecology during his career. He may rightly be considered one of the first ecological foresters as well.
Born in Rockford, Illinois, Herb Stoddard made his career in the longleaf pine forests of the Red Hills region on the border of Georgia and Florida. At about age four, his family had moved to central Florida to grow oranges. There he learned from local cattlemen how fire worked in the longleaf system, experience that he applied later to his wildlife work. After seven years in Florida, the family returned to Rockford in 1900. Tired of school, Stoddard went to work on his uncle’s farm in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, and soon began an apprenticeship with a local taxidermist that led to museum jobs.
Those museum jobs, where he specialized in birds, led to a position with the Bureau of the Biological Survey in 1924 conducting a field investigation of the life history of the bobwhite quail in the Red Hills. The bobwhite quail was a popular game bird in the region. The landowners, who collectively owned nearly 300,000 acres of former farmland converted to a hunting preserve, had grown concerned with the bird’s dwindling population and funded the Cooperative Quail Investigation. Stoddard, according to The Art of Managing Longleaf, the new book by Leon Neel, with Paul Sutter and Albert Way, was to “study the population dynamics of bobwhite quail and implement strategies to ensure their increase.” It was a bold move, in large part because when Stoddard arrived in the Red Hills, there was no field of wildlife management to guide him. As Sutter and Way note in their introduction, one of Stoddard’s major conclusions “was that the fate of the quail and other wildlife rested with the quality of their habitat rather than strict bag limits.” Stoddard produced a book, The Bobwhite Quail: Its Habits, Preservation, and Increase, in 1931 that is considered the “foundational text” for the field of wildlife management and is still referred to as “The Quail Bible.”
In addition to studying the quail on farmed lands, Stoddard looked at longleaf forests. It was there that he made his mark in forestry. Along with a handful of botanists, foresters, and land managers, he came to the realization that longleaf forests were dependent on frequent fire for their perpetuation. After the CQI ended and he had published his book, Stoddard established the Cooperative Quail Study Association in 1931 with funding from local landowners to continue his research. The Red Hills quickly became a center for ecological research, and eventually led to the establishment of both the Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee, Florida, and the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center near Albany, Georgia.
During World War II, Stoddard became a forestry consultant on the quail preserves, and he hired Leon Neel, a recent graduate of the University of Georgia’s forestry school who had grown up nearby, as his assistant in 1950. Stoddard developed, and Neel perfected, a model of ecological land management that is now known as the Stoddard-Neel Method. The method allows for harvesting both timber and quail on a sustainable, profitable basis — a difficult balance to achieve and maintain. It requires an intimate knowledge of the land. It doesn’t follow formulas and can’t be taught in a textbook manner. As Albert Way describes it in a Forest History Today article on the method, “At its most basic, the Stoddard-Neel method strives to maintain a diverse understory through the use of frequent controlled fire, and a sustained-yield, multiage forest through conservative selection harvesting. Today, thanks in large part to the Stoddard-Neel method, some forests of the Red Hills and Dougherty Plain represent the most diverse longleaf-grassland environments remaining.”
The FHT article uses excerpts from oral history interviews conducted with Neel in 2004. Those interview tapes may be found here in Durham in our archive. Because there is so much more to this story than can be covered here, we recommend starting with Bert Way’s article as a primer and then moving on to the book about Neel and Herb Stoddard to learn more about the Stoddard-Neal Method and the man who created it.