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ISSUE 119 VOL 19 PUBLISHED 5/5/2006

Fires preserve natural lands, promote research

By April Wright
Staff Writer

Friday, May 5, 2006

Some of the more observant students on campus may have noticed an enormous cloud of thick grey smoke rising up from the natural lands this past week. Others may have noticed the stench of burning grass invading the campus. These events were caused by the annual prairie burn.

This year, about 30 acres were burned, but there was also a small patch that Gene Bakko, professor of biology and curator of the natural lands and his team of St. Olaf students were not able to get to.

Wearing bulky yellow burn suits, the Bakko-led team of students applied fuels to the grass to set the prairie ablaze. By the end of the burn, the patch of land formerly covered with brown grasses became an open patch of rich, black soil, ready for new plants to take root.

With terrifying news clips of California forest fires raging out of control and Smokey the Bear constantly demanding the proper use of campfires, we may have become a bit jaded towards large burning tracts of nature. But while some fires may damage the ecosystem, prescribed prairie burns can be very helpful.

A prairie burn, usually conducted in the spring before the grass grows too green, performs many useful tasks for the environment. Fire helps sustain the natural prairie ecosystem because it can push back invasive species of plants, such as certain weeds, trees and shrubs.

Fires also enrich the soil and remove some pathogens from the environment. The prescribed, controlled burning of prairies can also help prevent unexpected, destructive wildfires, an important concern for the conservation of such wild areas.

The use of fire to preserve prairies and other types of habitats is not a new practice. Native Americans expertly used fire for many of the same purposes, including the removal of pests and maintenance of prairies. They also used it to encourage the growth of some berries and to help locate some types of nuts.

The European settlers who eventually replaced the Native Americans also continued this practice. But when the logging industry burgeoned, the cleared land was easier to ignite and the practice of prescribed burning was abandoned. More careful prairie burns were re-introduced in the late 1900s, once the benefits became more well known.

Despite their benefits, prairie burns cannot be done too frequently. Which fields are burned is dependent on several factors, such as how new the plant growth in the field was, and when it was planted.

St. Olaf has been conducting prairie burns since the ‘90s. “We planted our first sizeable prairie in 1992, so our first burn would have been in 1999,” Bakko said.

Since then, the natural lands have been on a burn rotation. Each plot is burned about every five years, "so the critters have somewhere to go,” said Bakko.

Prairie burns come with a unique set of challenges and rewards on the human side of things as well.

“It's worrisome because it's potentially dangerous,” said Bakko.

But one question remains: Is it fun to torch a few acres of prairie? “Oh yeah,” Bakko said, “we're all pyromaniacs.”

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