Prairie Restoration at Litzinger Road Ecology Center
I’m a volunteer at the Litzinger Road Ecology Center in Ladue. Volunteers and on some occasions the public are invited to educational events on the premises. I recently attended a session for volunteers to learn about why the prairie sections at the center are periodically burned and an introduction about how to start a fire, control the fire, and perform the burn safely.
At the time of European settlement, about 1/3 of the state of Missouri was covered by tall grass prairie. Today 70,000 acres remain and only 22,000 acres are protected, making prairie one of the most endangered ecosystems. Fire is necessary to maintain prairie. Lightning and human intervention provided the fire in historic times and in the present day.
An example of a restored tall grass prairie at Fort Bellefontaine County Park
Here are some reasons why Native Americans in Missouri used fire:
- Fire stimulates growth of raw shoots which attract game animals to eat them
- Aid to visibility of enemies coming
- Weapon against enemies
- Herding game
- Made travel easier
In the present day fire is used for managing remnants and for restoration. The prairie at LREC is not a remnant of prairie that was never plowed or otherwise destroyed, it is a restoration approximating to the best of our ability what used to be there. A real prairie takes thousands of years to form so a restored prairie is not exactly the same but a managed restoration can perform some of the functions of this type of ecosystem.
Purposes fire management at LREC:
- Removal of non-native invasive plants and woody seedlings that are unwanted
- Supports birds and other animals with food and habitat
- Encourages forbs and grasses
- Increases plant diversity
- Protects against unplanned burns by removing excess fuel
- Removes thatch and helps animals that can’t make use of the thatched areas
I’m sure many readers remember the Yellowstone Fire of 1988. That is an example of a situation that was more serious than it might have been if the land had not been managed to suppress all fire and to let fuel build up for many decades. My first visit to Yellowstone was during the 1988 fire so I remember it well!
At LREC we only burn certain sections of the prairie at one time, so animals can escape and take shelter in the unburned portions. Also we want to leave some habitat for insects, reptiles and amphibians. We try to keep from cutting down or burning stems until spring because many insects overwinter in the stems and they need a chance to escape.
We were shown tools and techniques that are used to start and manage controlled prairie fires
This year we are going to attempt to burn the “Mulch Pile Woods”. Woods are harder to burn because there is less fuel. The large piles of brush will be removed before the burn because too much fuel could set trees on fire and we only want to burn the undergrowth. Large logs and vines may also be removed before the burn. Some wood may be returned after the burn so it can continue to serve it’s natural purpose in the forest.
The brush in the foreground will be removed before the burn because that is too much fuel for the type of fire desired
Settled areas are difficult to burn in. Mowing can be used for management in areas where burning is not possible. Mowed grassy areas are used around the prairie patches as a firebreak.
LREC submits burn plans to the Ladue Fire Department and the St. Louis County Health Department to make sure air quality is good enough and that the Ladue Fire Department is available for backup. We have to let them know what sections we want to burn and what the reasons are for burning. Three prairie sections are on two-year rotations.
The best conditions for burning consist of low wind speeds, humidity levels of 20-50%, air temperature of 35-65 degrees F and good air quality. LREC obtains a permit for a range of dates so they can seize a favorable opportunity when it happens. Volunteers are given 24 hours notice. This year a permit was applied for between December and May. The Ladue Fire Department comes as a backup but so far they have not needed to do anything to help out. If the Fire Department is too busy to come that day the burn will have to be postponed until they are available.
Click this link to see photos and video of previous year’s burns:
Many volunteers at LREC are eager to witness a burn or to participate in one because it’s unusual and exciting. I don’t know if I’ll be available the day it happens this year, but if I participate I’ll be sure to write about how it went.
If you would like to learn about fire safety or how to conduct a controlled burn on your own property, these resources from the Missouri Department of Conservation will help you get started:
Here are a couple of my other articles about activities at the Litzinger Road Ecology Center:
Master Gardener Training Program Volunteer Activities
One of the requirements of the St. Louis Master Gardener Training Program is to perform at least 40 hours of volunteer work per year. We have until December to complete the hours but I thought it would be a good idea to get an early start (ok I admit it, I was dying to get my kayak out on the water). My first volunteer effort of the year was to participate in Operation Clean Stream at Simpson Lake in Valley Park on February 27, 2016.
Simpson Lake was a bit trashed due to the flooding in December but we made a really good dent in it. I was rewarded with sightings of a Bald Eagle and a beaver!
On St. Patrick’s Day I went on a tour of the Litzinger Road Ecology Center in Ladue with other Master Gardener trainees and made arrangements to volunteer there on a regular basis. The center is a private teaching facility owned by a foundation and managed by Missouri Botanical Garden. It is not open to the public so I thought you might enjoy seeing some photos of our tour if you have never been there.
One of the major activities at the center is removing non-native plants so that native plants can flourish. This picture shows native Bluebells emerging among other plants that are slated for removal. When I start my volunteer work I have no doubt that I’ll be learning a lot more about invasive plants!
Here is a section of Deer Creek that runs through the center. At the top of the ridge there is an old railroad right-of-way that was formerly the Laclede and Creve Coeur Lake Railroad route. I knew nothing about this interesting historical tidbit until last year when I was riding my bike in the area and noticed the right-of-way and looked it up to see what it might be. As you can see from the photo, erosion is a big problem along the creek. If you own property within the watershed of Deer Creek and you would like to learn how to manage your property to reduce flooding and erosion and to improve the water quality, the Deer Creek Watershed Alliance can help you learn how to do that.
In the foreground is a prairie area and on the ridge is an exquisite Mid-Century Modern house that was formerly the home of the benefactors who donated the land for the center. It is now used as an office for the foundation.
Fire is one of the tools sometimes used here for prairie management. Here is a clump of Prairie Dropseed coming back after a burn.
Our tour guide is pictured here explaining that a Monarch Waystation is planned for the area around the fence. The kids who come here for programs (and adults like me) should really love that when it’s done! I developed an interest in insects at a very young age and still haven’t lost it. Here and there on the grounds are “bug boards” that can be lifted up to see what’s taking shelter underneath. I loved doing that kind of thing when I was young and I still can’t resist it!
I’m also crazy about birds so seeing these gorgeous turkeys was a treat!
Here is a view of the circa 1964 house that shows some of the cool details.
Here is a Spicebush in flower – a beautiful and desirable native plant for the St. Louis area. It’s worth considering if you are planting to help pollinators and birds because it is a host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly.
I hope you enjoyed my virtual tour of the Litzinger Road Ecology Center! It is likely that I’ll mention some of my upcoming work here in future issues of this newsletter.