Prairie fires continue their critical role in restoration
Roads and Grounds schedules regular controlled prairie burns in the spring and fall.
The wet, cold weather has put a damper on a crucial method of keeping Fermilab's prairies healthy: prairie burning. In the spring and fall, Fermilab Roads and Grounds uses controlled fires to burn off weedy plants -- which often have no natural checks in the prairie ecosystem -- while encouraging the growth of native plants.
To see the effects, just travel to the 15th floor and look for small patches of green sprinkled throughout dead grass. Those green areas thriving with plants are probably areas that burned this spring. Prairie plants survive fires well because the majority of the plant is underground, said Fermilab ecologist Rod Walton. The invasive species, which stand in the way of a restored prairie, have most of their biomass above ground, so they are less tolerant of fires.
More fires are needed to meet the annual goal of burning 600 acres, said Mike Becker, manager of Roads and Grounds. The window of opportunity is closing, although there was a successful burn in the Main Ring last Friday. The cutoff date for fires is April 15, when birds begin nesting, and all the recent rain has meant fewer burns. "We hope to get better weather," Becker said.
Although 600 acres may be a hard goal to reach, Becker says it's worth a try since burning is cheaper than mowing or applying herbicide. "Considering all management options, burning prairie areas is the most effective." Fermilab has been using the technique safely for about 30 years, and its prairie restoration program has won several environmental awards.
In addition to controlled burns, Fermilab ecologists also harvest seeds and remove weedy plants by hand to encourage prairie diversity. The lab is not unique in burning prairie. Morton Arboretum in Lisle burns its prairie to remove English and Japanese plant species.
Read More on the Ecological Land Management web site.
Editor's note: Robert Betz, who pioneered the prairie reconstruction project
at Fermilab together with Director Robert Wilson, passed away on Thursday,
April 5. Services will be private. Fermilab Today will highlight Betz's
contributions in an upcoming story.