Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fall burn promotes health of woodland at Allerton

Fall burn promotes health of woodland at Allerton

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Last Friday morning I was among a small group of people who came together in a parking lot at Robert Allerton Park near Monticello and prepared to set the woods on fire. Of course this wasn’t a group of thrill-seeking teenagers bent on destruction. Among those gathered were scientists and managers from the University of Illinois and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, a field representative of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and the acting natural areas manager of the park. Our purpose was to conduct a prescribed burn to promote the ecological integrity of the oak-hickory forest at the site.

How does fire promote ecological integrity in an oak-hickory forest? Partly by knocking back invasive exotic plants that would otherwise crowd out native understory flowers and shrubs. In addition, burning has the effect of killing off native maple trees, which is also a good thing. In the absence of fire, maples will eventually replace oaks and hickories through a process of succession. This process was regularly interrupted prior to European settlement in Illinois by burns that Native Americans conducted.

A rotation of prescribed burns is now part of the overall design to manage the natural areas at Allerton, where the aim is to restore the native diversity of plants and animals by controlling invasives such as garlic mustard, multiflora rose, and privet.

As you might imagine, there’s a certain pleasure in lighting a big fire and watching it sweep through the woods. But that’s really only the culminating step of a prescribed burn, a step made possible by a great deal of preparatory work.

Our burn was conducted according to a plan developed by IDNR Heritage Biologist Eric Smith. That plan was drafted a year ago and approved by supervisors at DNR as well as the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. It specified the boundaries of the burn unit, the number of people who would be involved, the weather conditions that would be acceptable for burning, what fire containment equipment would be on hand, and more.

Prior to the burn we cleared leaves and other flammable debris from the wide trails that served as firebreaks, and all members of the burn team reviewed the plan for the day together.

Here’s how it worked. The outline of our burn was a U-shape, with the Sangamon River corridor forming the open end on the north, and the wind blowing toward that end from the south. Shortly before noon we split into two groups, each of which began lighting fire at one tip on the U and continued down along the side, converging at the closed end. By design, the fire moved into the burn unit slowly from the sides of our U, and more rapidly from the closed end, since the wind pushed it along from that direction.

Our woodland burn at Allerton was never as dramatic as a prairie fire, since it was fueled only by fallen leaves and the small amount of down wood that was dry enough to burn. But now and then a standing dead tree or a broken limb with dried leaves still attached would ignite and send flames roaring skyward.

By 4:30 in the afternoon all remaining fire was contained in the blackened area, and most of the burn crew was able to leave, save for Allerton’s natural areas manager Drew Becker, who remained into the night to monitor material that was still smoldering.

Mary Kay Solecki of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, who stepped in as “burn boss” when Eric Smith injured his knee prior to the burn, termed it a success: “Everything we wanted to burn burned, and nothing burned that we didn’t want to burn. And the fire was hot enough to kill the plants we wanted to kill.”

Visitors to the woods near the Lost Garden at Allerton Park should be able to witness this success for themselves. Next spring the green of emerging wildflowers will stand out in contrast to the blackened ground. In the long term, the understory will remain open and favor the regeneration of the oaks and hickories in the forest.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Trip to southern Illinois prompts thoughts about invasive species

Trip to southern Illinois prompts thoughts about invasive species

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This past Saturday morning I found myself picking goldenrod seed from my favorite fleece pullover. I was waiting with another parent while our Boy Scouts prepared for a trip to Giant City State Park in southern Illinois. I remarked to him that it would probably be better for me not to bring along those seeds, which had gotten stuck on me at River Bend Forest Preserve the week before. Who knows what impact they would have, transported 200 miles from where they started?

That moment came back to me again and again on our trip, as I was reminded of the many ways people shape the world by moving plants and animals around.

Of course we were already not hauling firewood with us because we’ve gotten the message about emerald ash borer. That’s the small beetle from Asia that has killed tens of millions of North American ash trees since it arrived near Detroit via wooden packing crates sometime before 2002. Emerald ash borers fly only short distances—maybe half a mile from where they begin life—but they have spread hundreds of miles through the movement of infested nursery stock and firewood.

As we drove south I noticed more and larger stands of Phragmites australis, or common reed. This is an aggressive European strain of a wetland grass that squeezes out all other plant life where it becomes established in North American settings. And phragmites is equally happy in a roadside ditch or a high quality natural area. [Dense stands of phragmites bordering a pond in Champaign County. It's pretty to look at, but detrimental to wildlife.] With its tall, graceful stalks and its elegant plumes of seed, phragmites looks pretty until you think about how detrimental it is to wildlife. It is good for neither food nor cover, and it crowds out plants that are. As I gazed over the vast swaths of phragmites near Rend Lake, I found myself thinking how similar it looks to miscanthus, the Asian grass that’s now so heavily promoted as a potential energy crop.

Even during our time at Giant City State Park we were reminded that plants often behave badly when they’re introduced into new ecosystems, where the forces that would keep them in check at home are absent. At the trailhead for our hike on Saturday afternoon we found a boot brushing station, where visitors were asked to clean up their footwear before setting out. [Rest assured the Scouts were having fun at Giant City, not worrying about invasive plants.] The station was set up by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources as one component of its broad effort to maintain the natural character of the park. According to IDNR naturalist Angie Kirkpatrick, invasive plants such as Japanese stilt grass and multiflora rose affect even the more remote areas of Giant City, and it’s a constant battle to keep them under control.

It seems to me the practical impact of a single boot brushing station at the beginning of a heavily-used trail would likely be pretty small. But I like the gesture it represents. In the same way we show respect for other people by not tracking dirt into their houses, we can show respect for the natural world by not thoughtlessly moving plants and animals (including insects) into places they don’t belong.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Panel of experts to address economic aspects of policy on climate change

Panel of experts to address economic aspects of policy on climate change

If things go as UI professor of finance Don Fullerton would have them, this Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. there will be a standing-room-only audience in the 300-seat Deloitte Auditorium of the Business Instructional Facility in Champaign. [Details here.] That audience will be eager to learn about prospects for action on climate change in the U.S. and around the world from a three-member panel of internationally recognized experts on the economic aspects of environmental policy.

Fullerton hopes to see a wide range of people in the audience, including undergraduate and graduate students, faculty from a across campus, and members of the public who are able to take advantage of this opportunity.

Although climate change is the impetus for this panel, scientific issues such as trends in world temperatures and rates of glacial retreat will not be the focus of attention. Rather, starting from the scientific consensus that global warming is a reality, and assuming that climate disruption will entail economic costs, the panel will examine the implications of some of the public policy options available for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These policy options include things like cap-and-trade systems for carbon, carbon taxes and tax credits or direct government support for the development of renewable energy.

Professor Fullerton, who organized and will also serve on the panel, is a former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department. He now studies energy and environmental policy issues at the UI Institute of Government and Public Affairs, and is a leading researcher on the economic impact of environmental regulations. Among his many credentials, he was the lone academic expert invited to speak about climate policy earlier this month at a meeting of European Union finance ministers that was a springboard for December’s climate conference in Copenhagen.

Charles Kolstad, who will also serve on the panel, is an economics professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He was a lead author and researcher for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. Kolstad is interested in the role information plays in environmental decision-making and regulation, and does much of his applied work in the area of climate change and energy markets. His past energy-related projects have included research into the effect of air pollution regulation on the coal and electricity markets.

The third panelist, Nat Keohane, left academia after six years of teaching economics in the business school at Yale to become Director of Economic Policy and Analysis at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Keohane is noted for his optimism regarding the role markets can play in resolving global warming. “We can afford to cut emissions ambitiously and deeply if we start now,” he says in a video about his role at EDF. “We have the technologies in place to get started and we know the policies we need, also. We need to harness the market to find the lowest cost, most effective ways of reducing emissions.”

The panel, which is free and open to the public, is cosponsored by three UI units: the Center for Business and Public Policy, the Institute of Government and Public Affairs and the Environmental Change Institute.