Editors: Possible Earth Day feature. Photos of prairie burn available upon request
On a cold, snowy Sunday in late March, a University of Illinois at Chicago biologist, backed by a volunteer crew, set fire to dry vegetation on one of the last surviving patches of virgin prairie in the state.
"If we didn't do it, in the long run, the prairie wouldn't survive," says Dennis Nyberg, associate professor of biological sciences and director of the UIC-owned-and-operated James Woodworth Prairie Preserve in the Chicago suburb of Glenview.
Prairie fire can be as revitalizing as spring rain. It clears away foreign vegetation, releases nutrients for native plants and opens paths of sunshine to sprouts. Centuries ago, when most of Illinois was tallgrass prairie, racing fires that groomed the land for regeneration were common phenomena. Today, less than 1 percent of the state's land is defined as prairie, and only a fraction of that has escaped alterations through human activity.
Nyberg has participated in or supervised more than 20 controlled prairie burns in different locations.
"The fire kills the above-ground part of woody vegetation," he says. Woody, as opposed to grass-stemmed plants, can overwhelm a prairie. Fire is a quick and effective control.
If left unchecked, Nyberg says, "there'd be an increase in the amount of woody vegetation and in 25 to 30 years, the prairie would probably turn into a shrub thicket. We're not willing to let things go as an experiment to find out if that will happen."
Vast prairie fires were historically sparked either by lightning or by humans. Nyberg's Chicago prairie burns follow strict controls. Burns are scheduled about 36 hours in advance, based largely on weather forecasts.
Ten-foot wide fire-breaks are mowed and raked along the perimeter of the burn area. The prairie grass is set alight upwind, then the fire progresses along a path, leaving in its wake a charred but cleared field. The process takes about an hour. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency must approve the burn in accordance with air quality regulations. Local fire departments are called and put on standby before any match is struck.
The James Woodworth Prairie Preserve-named for a Chicago mayor who served for only one year between 1848-49-was slated for commercial development before a local group of environmentalists in 1965 moved to save it. It was then part virgin prairie, part go-cart track and part miniature golf course.
The "Peacock Prairie Preservation Committee," named for the family that settled the land, brought the threatened prairie to the attention of a Chicago-based conservation group, the Openlands Project. It, in turn, sought backers to raise $200,000 to buy the land. Half was donated by a charitable foundation, the Chicago Community Trust. After securing matching federal funds and pledging additional money for improvements, the University of Illinois at Chicago took over ownership and management of the prairie in 1968.
UIC students and faculty now use the 5.3-acre tract for teaching and research year-round. It is a rare suburban home to a variety of wildlife and plants, including some threatened species. Seeds from native plants are carefully harvested and used for prairie restoration projects elsewhere.
UIC's James Woodworth Prairie Preserve is open to the public by appointment and on a daily basis June through August. Phone (847) 965-3488 for visiting information.
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