Why burn? Developing a sustainable prairie with an ancient tool
The next time you are out at Big Hill park, you will see a charred moonscape near the Center parking lot. This is completely on purpose, because Welty and the Rock County Conservationists worked with the City of Beloit to burn the patch of prairie near the entrance of the park. In the video below, Dave Bendlin of RCC explains the project:
Patience is required to restore agricultural land to its former glory and Welty and RCC are playing the long game. Weather, length of growing seasons, invasive management, and animal habitat are all considerations for a restoration plan.
These burns benefit native plants…
Tree- (evergreens, Siberian Elm) and brush-clearing (Honeysuckle, Buckthorn, and Autumn Olive) is the first step to open up the space, reduce competition for oak trees, and expose the ground to the sun. In the summer, invasive species (Wild Parsnip, Spotted Knapweed, Wild Clover) need to be controlled using hand-pulling or careful herbicide spot application. Prescribed burns, such as yesterday’s, help control invasives and promote prairie growth. Prairie species can be introduced by spreading collected seed (Common Milkweed, Pale Purple Coneflower, Side Oats), or transplanting existing plants. Once these species are well-established, maintenance is reduced to annual burns and invasive removal when needed.
Oak Savanna is considered a “fire-dependent ecosystem.” Oak trees are resistant to fire, because they have deep roots, thick bark, and the natural adaption to resprout after a burn. Fire removes oak leaves and litter, which opens up the soil for seeds and allows plants to grow faster while returning minerals and nutrients to the soil. It also controls harmful insects and diseases and removes annual invasives so they can’t set seed for the next growing season. These burns benefit native plants, but also help animals who use prairie ecosystems for habitat and food. Spaces are cleared for more diverse foraging materials for seed-eaters, and better cover grows back for grass-nesting birds.
…but also help animals who use prairie ecosystems for habitat and food.
It’s sooty and black right now (although closer to the entrance stalks were too wet to burn, so it’s not as clear as we’d hoped), but check back regularly to see how the landscape changes over time. As we head into spring, we hope to schedule volunteer work days to take advantage of the clearing and continue to improve the space. In the meantime, we’ll keep posting on how the land responds to the burn, or you can come see for yourself!
Executive Director, WEC