“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins as in art with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values yet uncaptured by language.” —Aldo Leopold
I have spent many hours in the Wisconsin River floodplain here at the Aldo Leopold Foundation (ALF) and “pretty” might not be the most accurate adjective that I would have attached to those experiences. Have I transcended to the higher level that Leopold is referencing above in his Marshland Elegy? No, I haven’t. My view is due simply to the lack of quality in our floodplain. But it’s getting better, and our recent prescribed burn added powerful momentum toward “pretty” in the Leopoldian sense. It’s a common misconception that by letting land sit idle, it will take care of itself. That is rarely, if ever, true. The mission of our stewardship crew has always been to actively improve the land!
ALF has a land management plan to help define what a high–quality floodplain would look like. One influencing factor in that plan is this land’s status as part of an Important Bird Area (IBA). IBAs are sites that, as determined by Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative, provide essential habitat to one or more species of birds. In 2015, ALF conducted a timber harvest on our floodplain that was a major step in restoring our landscape to a mosaic of sand prairie, oak barrens, sedge meadow, grassland, shrub, and floodplain oak savanna—important habitat for our targeted birds. These communities are both IBA–relevant and historically appropriate. They’ve been here a long time before us, and with a little help they will still be here long after us. Historically, the ongoing natural health of floodplains is heavily influenced by what fire does to them.
Any landscape after a massive timber harvest is going to look less than perfect. If left idle after the harvest, our harvested floodplain would have returned to what it looked like twenty years ago: not good. Following our 2015 harvest, a 2016 deluge of sunlight allowed for a flush of new growth, woody propagules and invasive species. Fire (in addition to other mechanical methods) and chemical control is usually employed by ALF staff to kill the undesirable plants and prevent transition back into the more forested ecological community that had resulted over idle decades.
The thing about prescribed fire is, it’s kind of hard to do when things are wet. Quite the revelation, I know. Conducting a controlled burn in a floodplain is a juggernaut of a job. Conditions in the spring are heavily influenced by snow melt, sometimes limiting burns because of high water from the river or fuels that are too wet from the thaw. Fall is an option as well, but many of us can remember what the last few years have looked like, with uncommonly high regional precipitation events that all have occurred in the fall. New climate prediction models don’t exactly predict that those large rain events will go away any time soon. Research proves the value of growing season burns, especially in setting back shrub/woody growth.
No matter what time of the year we burn, our goal is to be efficient, safe, and encourage the “quality” flora as directed by our management plan.
On August 26th we had spectacular conditions for a growing season burn: air temp of 92 degrees; no measurable precipitation for over a month; the correct wind for the 120-acre unit we were interested in burning. And most importantly, an excited crew of 7 willing hands (Including Mitch Groenhof, Land Stewardship Coordinator, Steve Swenson, Program Director, and Buddy Huffaker, Executive Director). Well, maybe not as important as boat loads of Gatorade and water. So, with hopeful hearts and a thorough debriefing, we had fire on the ground by 11:00 am. Peak fire conditions are usually mid–afternoon, and honestly, by 1:00 pm, most everyone was wearing down with the heat from flames that often rose to 15 feet and higher.
The burn lasted almost seven hours. Growing–season burns are usually extra smoky and almost always slower due to the moisture content in the fuels, and they tend to leave patches of unburned fuels. This is a benefit for the wildlife.
The overall effects of the burn won’t be fully understood until next year’s new growth comes on. We are hoping that the burn killed all woody shrub species like prickly ash, dogwood, and the invasives like buckthorn and multiflora rose. We want prairie forbes, grasses, and large Swamp white oak trees: no vegetation between three feet and twenty–five feet tall. Think a carpet of prairie grasses and huge, full canopy trees.
The growing–season burn really seems to be a smashing success—its immediate effects are noticeable in the final pictures. I think in one day we completed the work that would have taken a whole winter of me in a machine forestry mulching. The burn cost us about 80 human–hours in total. While the same work completed chemically or mechanically would have taken 400-600 hours, not to mention all of the fossil fuels.
Editor’s note: Midwest and Western ecosystems are significantly different in relation to fire activity, scope, and severity. Carefully planned and conducted Midwest growing season prescribed burns are exceedingly safe. Our thoughts are with so many experiencing the hardships and tragedies of 2020 Western wildfires.