Thursday, March 27, 2008

Fire helps to maintain Prospect Cemetery Nature Preserve

Fire helps to maintain Prospect Cemetery Nature Preserve

***Information about tomorrow's presentation on Prospect Cemetery below***

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People who work to preserve and restore natural areas employ a wide range of tools, from handsaws and loppers to much larger mechanical equipment. But none of these can take the place of the oldest and most powerful implement humans use to manipulate the landscape, fire.

Yesterday morning I joined up with a group of volunteers from the Urbana-based conservation group Grand Prairie Friends as they put fire to work at the Prospect Cemetery Nature Preserve in Paxton. Like many other cemeteries established by early white settlers in Illinois, Prospect Cemetery has served dual purposes over the past two centuries. It has been a burial ground for people, as was intended by those who established it. But it has also served as an unintentional refuge for the rich variety of plant life native to central Illinois. In effect, by setting aside land that had never been plowed, those nineteenth-century settlers made it possible for us to see a glimpse of the prairie they encountered.

The tallgrass prairie that dominated the landscape of central Illinois from about 8,000 years ago until the advent of modern agriculture was characterized by a tightly packed mixture of more than 300 species of grasses and flowers, many of which grew to heights of 10 feet or more. The importance of refuges such as Prospect Cemetery is underscored when one calls to mind just how little original tallgrass prairie remains in the Prairie State today: less than one-tenth of one percent.

In combination with climate and grazing, fire was one of the primary factors that accounted for the existence of prairies here, where forests would otherwise have taken over. Sometimes caused by lightning and other times ignited by Native Americans, prairie fires are estimated to have burned any given parcel of land once every one to five years.

By removing thatch and speeding the return of nutrients to the soil in the form of ash, prairie fires enabled dormant seeds to germinate. The spring and summer following a burn were marked by a profusion of flowers and reinvigorated forage. Prescribed burns are used now in the management of prairie remnants and restorations to achieve similar effects.

The prescribed burn I took part in yesterday was directed by Mary Kay Solecki, a field representative of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and it was a tightly organized affair. [Photo: burn workers use a small backfire create a firebreak.] Backfires were used to create a firebreak around the perimeter of the burn unit, and there were more than enough capable hands available to monitor the fire’s progress on every side. A favorable wind and the dry condition of the plant material fueling the head fire combined so that it swept through the target area within 15 minutes. In the fire’s wake a thin layer of ash covered the rich black soil and bits of low vegetation that were too moist to burn.

If you would like learn more about the history of Prospect Cemetery, you are invited to attend a public presentation on that subject tomorrow evening (Friday, March 28, 2008) at 7:00 p.m. at the PBL High School in Paxton. If you wish to witness for yourself the dramatic regrowth of tallgrass prairie after a fire, make time to stop by Prospect Cemetery in Paxton this summer. You can access it from South Vermillion Street near Green Street at the south end of Paxton.

Bob Reber, a managing editor and staff photographer for The Illinois Steward magazine will present a slide show and talk entitled “Prospect Cemetery Prairie – A Part of Ford County’s Natural Heritage” on March 28th, 2008 at the March meeting of the Ford County Historical Society. The meeting will be held in the Little Assembly at Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School at 700 West Orleans St. in Paxton. All are encouraged to attend. Refreshments will be available.