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Wild Side: Planted prairie blackened again

Bill Smith, Keith Rodli, Sandy Tauferner and Carol Wilcox tend the north fire line during a controlled burn on our planted prairie. Mike Larson photo for River Falls Journal.

--by Dan Wilcox, outdoor columnist

After a hot and smoky time on our planted prairie last Saturday afternoon, a somewhat tired bunch of friends looked with satisfaction over the blackened field dotted with anthills. The wind blew small tornadoes of grass ashes, and all the smoking spots were extinguished.

Dennis Anderson, Keith Rodli, Mike Larson, Sandy Tauferner, Myron Mortell, Brian Hopp, Carol and I —  all veterans of many prairie burns — were the burn crew this year. We made use of backpack water sprayers, Hopp’s 4-wheeler with a water tank and sprayer, and a water pump and hose reel in the back of my truck to contain the fire.

We started at the west end of our field with a back burn into the easterly wind. After burning a blackened perimeter around the west and north sides of the field, torch-bearer Myron Mortell fired off the east end of the field. A line of fast-moving flames raced downwind to meet the already-burned parts of the field and then stopped. The big cloud of steam and smoke drifted off, clearing the air.

The native grasses and forbs in our planted prairie are adapted to fire with deep roots and underground growing points. Native Americans in our region routinely set fires to keep the prairie vegetation growing well, suppress brush and to provide habitat for the wildlife that they depended on.

The planted prairie is serving a function that is important to all of us. Soils of former prairie that has been converted to row-crop agriculture may contain only 10 to 70 percent of the carbon stored belowground compared with soils that have continuously grown prairie. Replanting prairies can result in significant carbon sequestration, locking up carbon that would otherwise become CO2 in the atmosphere that contributes to global warming.

As the prairie plants grow they put most of their biomass into root systems underground, to a depth more than six feet, adding tons of carbon per acre into the soil. Mesic (moist) tallgrass prairies are champion ecosystems for building carbon content in the soil. In less than 10 years, newly restored mesic prairies can sequester more than several tons of carbon per acre into the soil. If you would like to offset your fossil carbon use, planting prairie is a good way to go.

In addition to benefits of sequestering carbon and providing grassland habitat for wildlife, planted and remnant native prairies in this area are great places to hike. It’s easy to imagine what the landscape around here was like 100 years ago when you are walking through grasses and flowers over your head.

The prairie needs to be burned every few years to rejuvenate it. The rains this week will help the burned prairie turn green quickly. With the help of our friends who are experienced in working with fire, we had a safe time burning our planted prairie. We will help them to burn other prairie and oak savanna areas around here when it dries out again. 

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