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Prescribed burning is a land management technique that's been around for thousands of years.
Video by Jeff Guenther.
Normally, it would be alarming to see a man pouring a flaming mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel onto your unmowed field, but the staff and volunteers at Reflection Riding were excited as they watched Bob Gray use his drip torch to set the Pine Savanna on fire last Monday.
Bob is a certified prescribed burn manager who volunteered his services to help Reflection Riding restore one of its many grassland habitats by conducting a prescribed burn. Prescribed (or controlled) burning is a land management technique that’s been around for thousands of years. Native Americans used controlled burning to manage their land for both game and agriculture. More recently many people have become familiar with prescribed burning as a method to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires fires. Burning off the excess plant debris that accumulates over time helps reduce the fuel load that feeds bigger, hotter fires.
Even more recently, ecologists have demonstrated that periodic fire is critical for maintaining healthy natural habitats. Fire has always been a part of natural ecosystem cycles, and many plant species are dependent on it. Decades of suppressing natural fire has resulted not only in larger, more damaging fires, but also in the deterioration of forest and grassland habitats. Grasslands are particularly dependant on fire, and natural grasslands have been on the decline in the southeastern US since Europeans began settling here. These natural prairie systems are home to plant and animal communities that can’t exist in any other type of setting, so their decline represents a loss of biodiversity in the region.
While millions of acres of historic natural prairie in the Southeast have been lost to agriculture, what remains has been degraded for the past 100 years by fire suppression. Efforts are now underway to restore these remaining fragments through prescribed burning. Unfortunately, much of the small percentage of naive prairie that is left is under the threat of development. That’s why another strategy to mitigate the loss of prairie habitat is to transform man-made open spaces into native grassland communities. Federal and state agencies, along with non-government organizations, have been converting roadsides, powerline right-of-ways, pastures, and oldfields into high quality prairie habitat through seeding native species and employing periodic prescribed burns.
Roads can help to prevent a burn from spreading.
At Reflection Riding one of our biggest resources is our space, much of which has been kept as pasture and open meadow for decades. In keeping with the emerging understanding of the critical need to conserve high quality prairie habitat, we have been changing our management practices to include mowing only once a year (usually in winter), and periodic prescribed burning. These practices prevent secondary succession of trees and shrubs and the encroachment of invasive species into the grassland habitat. Combined with the deliberate introduction of native prairie species into these sites, the result is a progressive transformation of ordinary meadows into high quality prairie habitat that will serve as a refuge for species that are otherwise losing their place in the Southeastern landscape.
We want to continue to protect these vital ecosystems throughout our 317 acres. To truly live our mission of reconnecting Chattanoogans with nature, we depend on your generous support. If you're not already a member, please join today, and consider a tax-deductible donation to make our educational resources available to those who may not be able to afford to pay.