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An Epic Burn In Our Epoch

 

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” —Aldo Leopold

Every winter, the Aldo Leopold Foundation stewardship staff make work-planning decisions about what pieces of the Leopold-Pines Memorial Reserve are priority to burn, what season will be the best to burn them, and what fire-break work needs to be completed to safely conduct the burn. This work-planning helps us prioritize the traditional spring prescribed fire season.

The burn plans have long been submitted to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for permitting, but the spring of 2022 has been a challenge for the crew. Dry days are few and far between and when they have shown up, it usually has been in concert with extremely high winds. On April 11, 2022, the foundation conducted a prescribed fire on two hundred and fifty acres. The objectives were standard; stop brush encroachment, set back cool season grasses, keep the crew safe and give them learning opportunities, consume slash (scattered limbs) from previous logging operations, and promote the savanna and grassland structure and ecosystem necessary for critically imperiled bird and pollinator species.

Drone Image

An aerial view after the burn (right side). Photo taken by Jackson Newman.

The burn was a smashing success. I would love to know exactly how many stems of prickly ash were cooked (hitting a temperature in the 140’s usually does the trick) never to inflict scratches again. A side note, prickly ash is a distant relative of citrus and if you mash the leaves in your fingers and smell, its aroma is wonderful. An olfactory balm, albeit not so soothing for all those scratches.

Most of the quantitative objectives listed above address the integrity and stability part of Leopold’s quote. I wish I had the ability to capture in words is “the beauty of the biotic community.” Perhaps data does predispose me to look at the biotic with a bent toward thinking them beautiful. Wisconsin currently retains less than one percent of its pre-European-settlement savanna habitat. (A 2019 Science study reports a related decline since 1970 in North American grassland bird species—more than 700 million breeding individual birds lost, with 74% of grassland species declining.) Our floodplain (lowland swamp white oak) savanna is an even rarer ecological community. In my short time here plying my labors on the land I have seen a slow progression toward the desired structure across the Leopold-Pines Memorial Reserve.

After the burn

The beauty of what is being returned to the landscape is almost indescribable. And it is worth mentioning how quickly this has come to pass. I wrote a blog post only two years ago about a growing season burn conducted on a portion of the floodplain. (September 17, 2020) Fire has shifted the landscape in an impressive direction these last two years. Where four acres monotype stands of dogwood were, we’ve constricted it to just two acres. Where slash from timber harvest prevented easily walking, we now have clear access to amble. Those few examples demonstrate where we have had success. But we have made mistakes too. The timing of that growing season burn seemed to have given some of the cool-season grasses a chance to flourish. Two steps forward, one step back.

Our journey isn’t anywhere near complete, we have a long way to go. We have more cool-season grasses than we would like and we need more forb diversity. However, I won’t despair as I am coming into an understanding that the right (proper) path is usually winding. While the wrong path is usually the straight one.


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