Burning to Restore Life
The crop fields and natural areas in Wisconsin’s Central Sands area make up a diverse and complex landscape that intermingles one of the nation’s most productive potato and specialty crop production areas with remnants of prairies, oak savannahs, pine breaks, wetlands, streams and lakes that existed after the glaciers receded thousands of years ago. This diversity provides ecological services—such as soil health, drainage, pollination and natural regulation of unwanted or invasive species—that go largely unrecognized and yet are essential to a healthy and vibrant ecosystem and the communities that depend on it. Much of the land in the Central Sands is privately owned by the farmers, whose families settled it generations ago. We are indeed fortunate that these far-sighted growers recognize the importance of the diversity contained on their farmsteads and are taking steps to preserve it by restoring remnants of natural habitats to their original condition. More than ten years ago, several potato growers in the Sands set out to develop more sustainable approaches to farming that preserved natural resources and ecological diversity. The program, called Healthy Grown™, involves the restoration on habitat remnants, and the use of fire is an important tool in that process.
Historically, the natural burning of prairies, wooded areas, and wetlands was important to maintain the diversity of species requiring more open landscapes. Without fire, plant species diversity is diminished and regional landscapes change, but with proper timing, prescribed burning controls many undesirable woody plants and herbaceous weeds while invigorating native, fire-dependent species. Prescribed burning can prepare a site for planting and/or seeding, inhibit exotic/invasive species, improve habitat for grassland species and reduce the potential for property-damaging wildfires. Fire removes invading woody plants that store most of their active growing tissue above ground while deep-rooted prairie plants can regenerate and thrive using growing tissue located below the ground. Fire also returns nutrients to the soil, and the bare soils warm up earlier in the spring to promote rapid growth of native plants.
While the need for fire still exists, experts need to be the ones who schedule, manage, and control burning in our crowded world. Growers in Central Sands have been working with conservation experts and experienced resource managers on developing comprehensive fire management plans for privately owned, diverse landscapes on their farms. This effort has been led by the International Crane Foundation, where staff ecologist Jeb Barzen has been advocating for the growers and their on-farm restoration efforts. Barzen promotes the use of fire in the context of managing the farm as a whole and understanding that farms produce more than just food but also provide a healthy ecological system and diverse services, which are beneficial to communities and neighbors alike. Fire helps maintain areas to promote these ecological services and is a necessary part of restoring native ecosystems.
A fire plan must be carefully managed and include objectives, maps, site background information, safety considerations, communication plans, weather predictions, a plan to manage smoke and appropriate permits. During the burn, the landowner, burn team, and conservation field ecologists monitor the site and ensure that the burn always remains under control. The fun part comes after the burn, when the site is monitored and the beauty of new species emerging becomes evident. Burns need to be repeated every few years to allow native species to flourish, but the results are positive each year as more species re-emerge. “Following a prescribed burn, one of my greatest joys is to see a puccoon or meadowlark return to an area where it was once thought lost for decades” said Barzen. Fire is frequently associated with destruction of property and natural areas, but when used in the right places, at the right times, it can bring benefits to all. Remember this as you travel through the Central Sands this fall and see smoke rising above the landscape. That smoke is often a local farmer with an environmental ethic, working to restore diversity!