Coming soon to a landscape near you: Prairie burn
As soon as conditions allow, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Facilities Management department will set fire to campus prairie land. Biological Sciences Professor Dave Rogers tells Ranger Today about the reasoning behind the flames.
Tallgrass prairie once covered millions of acres across the Midwest, over 99% of which has been lost to agriculture and urban development. UW-Parkside was an early innovator in the art and science of ecological restoration and contains some of the earliest prairie restoration efforts in the country.
At its inception, more than 80 acres of native prairie were planted on campus to provide an outdoor laboratory space for the natural sciences and to demonstrate our commitment to environmental stewardship. The annual ritual of prairie burning illustrates this stewardship because only the dedicated efforts of the Facilities Management burn crew over the last 40 years has kept these prairies alive.
Prairies need fire to function properly because frequent fires kill invading shrub and tree species and help eliminate non-native herbaceous species like teasel and brome grass that grow earlier in the spring than do native species. Fires also return vital nutrients to the soil, allowing prairie species to grow taller and to produce the flowers and seeds necessary to keep their populations flourishing.
Similarly, fires remove insulating thatch and blacken the ground, which allows the soil to warm up earlier in the year and stimulates the growth of warm-season native grasses. And it's not just the plants that benefit. The increased flowering and seed production help maintain populations of butterflies, birds, and other animals that rely on prairie plants for food and shelter.
Despite the best efforts of Facilities Management, much of UW Parkside's original restored prairies have been lost to development and the remaining remnants have lost much of their original diversity, particularly of flowering plants. In response to these changes, UW-Parkside has renewed its commitment to this grand tradition.
Recently, a native plant nursery was established on campus that is generating bare root and seed stock to be planted back into the prairie, hopefully returning these prairies to their former glory and creating an outdoor lab space that will continue to serve future generations of UW-Parkside students.
In the photo, UW-Parkside grounds supervisor and torch bearer Scott Berzinsky leads the prairie burn.