Watershed Representative | Muscle Shoals, Ala.
It’s a cool and sunny Wednesday in April on the Pickwick Reservoir in north Alabama, and the atmospheric conditions are just right. Winds are at the right speed and direction, relative humidity is in a good range and it’s not foggy. It’s time to burn.
Damien Simbeck, TVA watershed representative, is the burn manager on the job, and he’s called in a team of experts that includes fellow TVA pros and representatives from the Alabama Forestry Commission. He’s alerted the local fire department—both so it knows that the burn is expected, and so it’s on notice should anything go awry.
It shouldn’t. “As burn manager I pay close attention to all the details—I write a plan, or a prescription, for everything,” Simbeck explains. “I specify where and how much we want to burn, where the fire breaks are located, what wind speed and direction we want, and what relative humidity is preferred. We watch the weather closely and estimate when we can burn—then have to be set up to go at a moment’s notice.”
That’s a lot of work, but it offers big benefits: “Prescribed fire is a management tool TVA uses to keep fields of grasses by burning off woody growth—TVA manages approximately 293,000 acres of land, but we don’t want them to be ALL forest. Burning for the health of the land is a tool that’s been around long before Europeans arrived in North America. We’re just picking up where the Native Americans left off.”
Visit TVA land in his territory—TVA West Operations, which reaches from Watts Bar Dam to the Ohio River—and all will seem so peaceful and at ease. There will be little evidence of all the sweat and hard work Simbeck puts in to keep it that way. His responsibilities are vast.
“I’m often in the field working on projects,” he explains. “That can involve working with contractors to improve parking and access roads; or working with local farmers on habitat management projects; or planting trees, native grasses and wildflowers to improve habitat; or conducting prescribed burns.”
He also works closely with the public, he says: “We spend a good bit of time participating in local litter clean-ups, leading educational outings, hosting Earth Day festivals and other outdoor-related events, and informing the public about other opportunities that are available on TVA managed lands.”
One of Damien’s big responsibilities is managing license agreements with area farmers to support the local economy, while managing the resources on the properties. In the west region, there are about 150 farmers engaged in mutually beneficial relationships with TVA, able to farm the land in exchange for fees and in-kind services, such as road maintenance and habitat management. “That’s a lot of personalities—and the full spectrum, too!” Simbeck says. “There are some who are, ‘This is the way I’ve always farmed this land and you’re not going to tell me what to do,’ and others who are glad to do whatever we suggest. I enjoy it—it gives me the opportunity to see how good I am at working with folks.”
Of all his projects, Simbeck is proudest of Marbut Bend, a trail and recreation area near Wheeler Lake near Elkmont, Ala. “Our management said we have the funds to do extra stewardship projects in the Valley, so we volunteered to build an accessible trail that would provide better access to the area near the Elk River, including a boardwalk through a beaver pond,” Simbeck remembers. “We thought it would be a great way to teach the public about the importance of wetlands. So we got approval and we put it on the ground.”
It has become quite popular locally—and is making waves regionally as well. “There are always four or five people out there walking around every time I go,” he says. “One day I came and saw a family pulling up a wagon from where they had camped by the river—they had Texas tags on the car!”
But working with the public isn’t always so positive. “We’ve always had issues with people who want to ride four-wheelers out there,” Simbeck says. “There have been people who dump their garbage out there. We’ve added a parking lot and guard rails, as well as informational signage. But there are always people who would just as soon abuse the property as use it. That bothers me a whole lot. Unfortunately, that will be a battle long after my time.”
Simbeck’s been married to wife Regina for 30 years, and they have two grown daughters and—their delight—a two-year-old grandson. “When we get time to spend time with the grandson, we’re happy,” Simbeck says.
What he does for fun, he usually does alone—and he’s passionate about it. “I’m a bird watcher—it’s an obsession,” he says. “My mother almost died in labor because I was born with binoculars around my neck. Instead of propping me up in front of Sesame Street, my parents put me in front of the windows to watch the bird feeders. I was birding in the fields and woods by myself when I was six years old. I was amazed by them, and I wanted to know: ‘What is that bird? What is that bird?’”
Though he enjoys the beauty, Simbeck—who has a BS in biology and an MS in zoology—is also interested in other aspects. “I’m more intrigued by the biology side, what they’re doing, how they survive, how they’re related to some other bird,” he says. “It’s more biology than beauty, for me anyway.”
Nevertheless, he keeps fellow birdwatchers in mind as he does his job. “I love having the opportunity to be outside trying to make TVA lands better for the stuff I enjoy—birdwatching, hunting, fishing, hiking,” Simbeck concludes. “I want others to have the opportunity to enjoy it too.”
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