THREE OAKS — A group of nearly 30 people explored recently burned tallgrass prairie at the Chikaming Park & Preserve on Saturday, April 6.
The first-hand program on prairie management and the role of controlled burns was sponsored by Harbor Country Hikers and the Chikaming Township Park Board.
Chikaming Park Board Chairperson Debra Hall-Kayler said Plantwise from Ann Arbor did the controlled burn on 23 acres of prairie at the Park & Preserve on March 23.
“I was very impressed with the operation,” she said, adding that about six people (predominately women) equipped with tanks of water and equipment such as ATV-type vehicles were at the site all day.
She said the fires were done strategically with wind direction and types of vegetation factoring into the plans.
“We will do this every three years. I’d like to do other burns, but one step at a time.”
Hike leader Buffy Dunham said such burns are also known as prescribed fires.
“That means it was applied to the land by design, by purpose, like a doctor prescribes a medicine to help your health. A prescribed fire is prescribed to the landscape to meet certain goals,” she said.
Dunham pointed out fire breaks on the portions of the Park and Preserve prairie that were burned — established to keep the flames within a pre-determined area.
The group of hikers saw different levels of burn as they toured the affected portions of the Park and Preserve, and most areas were dotted with anthills (small black ants cold be seen swarming the mounts on closer inspection). Green shoots of new growth were beginning to appear here and there in the burned prairie area.
Dunham said non-native turf grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass and fescues don’t burn easily while native prairie plants (along with some wet sedges and certain kids of woodlands like oak savannahs) that evolved with fire (normally caused by lightning strikes) do.
She said fire-dependent landscapes are used to the disturbance of fire and depend on it to continue the species that make up the landscape.
“When you take away fire from fire-dependent landscapes species come in that aren’t fire dependent. They begin to change the landscape. So in prairies you might start to see woody plants come in, which changes the composition of the landscape and makes it less desirable for the animals and plants that live there.
“You don’t want a lot of woody plants or large structures in a grassland for grassland birds. Say a tree pops up, it brings in a predator that normally wouldn’t be there.”
Dunham said an oak woodland that doesn’t have regular fires can be invaded by sugar maples, basswoods, tulip trees and others that change the forest.
She said Native Americans burned landscapes on a regular basis to maintain habitats and create new growth of grasses that could attract more animals for hunting. Clearing a view to see if other people were approaching may also have been a goal.
During the pioneer settlement days she said fires were used to help clear the land for agriculture — and then came the days of Smokey the Bear when fire was avoided. Dunham said we’re at the point now where we’re trying to restore native landscapes and remove invasive species using fire. She later noted that some invasive plants actually thrive in the wake of burning.
Other goals of today’s prescribed fires mentioned by Dunham range from creating better grazing for livestock and improving ecosystems for wildlife and/or game species to reducing the amount of flammable material in a fire-prone area.
She said fire can be good or bad and has to be applied in a way that minimizes damage to species such as Eastern box turtles or other reptiles, amphibians, rare species and nesting birds.
“You always have to be balancing the impacts on all the species that are in the landscape, and we oftentimes sadly don’t know enough about them.”
It is believed that controlled burns in the late winter/early spring (such as this year’s at the Park and Preserve) especially promote the growth of prairie grasses like the big bluestem established at the Chikaming Park and Preserve along with prairie panic grass and indian grass, while fall burns help bring out more flowering “forbs” such as goldenrod.
Before the hike began, Harbor Country Hikers President Pat Fisher said the organization is almost 2 years old now and has probably organized about 50 hikes — including a few at the the Chkaming Park and Preserve.
Participants in the April 6 hike were serenaded by spring frogs and even came upon a small garter snake sunning itself along the trail while exploring other portions of the Park & Preserve.
Next up for the Harbor Country Hikers is a 1 p.m. Saturday, April 27, wildflower walk through Warren Woods State Park led by Arch Hopkins, who holds a doctorate in botany and knows about wildflowers and other unique characteristics of climax forests.
The two-hour walk and talk may include some wet trails along the 1.75-mile moderate trek that includes some stairs and a short climb or two. Hikers will meet at the trailhead parking lot on the north side of Union Pier/Elm Valley/Townline Road, between Red Arrow Highway and Three Oaks Road.
Harbor Country Hikers events are open to all and children are welcome if accompanied by an adult. For weather cancellations, further information about HCH or to request a membership form, visit them on Facebook or at harborcountryhikers.com.