Friday, December 3, 2010

Homestead Simulates Nature’s Solution, Fire

Homestead National Monument of America recently performed a prescribed burn on a portion of the restored tall grass prairie. I have been in and around areas that have conducted controlled burns, but I never took the time to learn about why this needed to be done. I began investigating the history of prescribed fire and its benefits to a tall grass prairie ecosystem and I would like to share that.

The tall grass prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. We have lost over 99% of all tall grass prairies in North America due in large part to agriculture and the construction of our vast infrastructure. In less than 200 years Euro-American society nearly destroyed what had been maintained for millennia by nature and the Native American Indian. Nature provided grazers, like the bison, along with droughts and fire to preserve this fragile environment. American Indian’s would routinely set fire to the prairie in order to attract the bison because bison were attracted to fire; bison sought the remnants of a burned prairie because it provided a nutritious meal. All of these natural efforts created a thriving ecosystem that covered over 250 million acres in the United States.

Fire on the prairie, however, became a hazard in the 19th and 20th centuries. The United States had expanded throughout the prairie and the plains and farmers transformed the vast tall grass prairies into crop fields. Tall grass prairies had been absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil for centuries, making it perfect for growing large quantities of crops. The combination of farmers clearing the land, towns and cities being built, along with railroads and highways spreading throughout the area, the once thriving tall grass prairie rapidly disappeared.

Today the existing tall grass prairie comes to us mostly through restoration efforts. State and National initiatives have brought back a small amount of this once flourishing ecosystem. Yet, restoration efforts are always fighting an uphill battle to control the delicate balance of these bio-systems. Natural resource specialists are constantly battling an onslaught of invasive species and noxious vegetation. Nature’s solution, fire, has become the tool of choice to limit and control harmful intrusions while stimulating the growth of native grasses. By simulating the natural conditions that had allowed the tall grass prairie to thrive, we can manage and maintain the little bit that we have left.

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