Prairie burning to restore natural habitat

By Kristen Beaumont

Bright sunshine fills the cloudless blue sky, a 67-degree temperature gives the April afternoon a pleasant feel and the slight whisper of wind lingering at the Barnhart Farm presents ideal conditions for the task at hand. Donald Barnhart gives the final instructions to the volunteers who are about to witness a prairie burn, a fire that cleanses the prairie of weeds and allows for more growth of the native plants.

Barnhart, 39, is the driving force behind the Barnhart Grove Prairie Restoration, a project devoted to the restoration of approximately 80 acres of his family’s 160-acre farm to its natural prairie state. Barnhart represents the community working to reestablish the prairie, which has all but vanished from the state of Illinois.

Twenty-two million acres of prairie once covered the landscape of Illinois but today less than 1/100 of 1 percent of original prairie exists in the state, said Mary Kay Solecki, a botanist for the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and a member on the board of directors of the restoration project. The destruction of the prairie has left only about 2,500 acres of high quality prairie, usually found in cemeteries, along railroad tracks or in areas that were not suitable for farming.

“I look at it as a lost natural history,” says Barnhart. “It’s been destroyed literally, plowed under by farming and agriculture.”

Barnhart began planting prairie plants on the farm with his father in 1987. He says that under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which provided governmental assistance for members of the agricultural community, they were able to set aside 30 acres of land that was to be planted with prairie. About 15 acres were planted in the original restoration.

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    In 1998, Conservation 2000, a state program, set aside funding for areas that would be permanently designated as nature preserves. The program gave the family 14 years to reestablish 80 acres of native prairie grasses and flowers.

    “The hardest thing about restoring a prairie for us is controlling the weeds that come up when you plant the prairie,” says Barnhart. “The weeds can sometimes be 100 times bigger than the prairie plants you are trying to establish, and it is very frustrating.”

    Prairie burns must be carried out when plants are dormant, so as not to cause harm to the native plants that might be coming up, says Solecki. For that reason, all prairie burns must be carried out between the end of October and April 15.

    “The place I wanted to start off with is hard to burn because it has never been burned before and hasn’t had that much growth,” Barnhart tells the group as they set off through a cornfield toward the prairie.

    Winter is the best time to plant prairie seeds because they need cold temperatures to germinate, Barnhart says. Once the prairie is planted, it pretty much should be left alone, with the exception of the burn, Barnhart says.

    Barnhart plans to burn three different sections of the prairie. The volunteers holding the drip torches move up to the edge of the first section and light the straw-colored remnants of last season’s prairie plants. Orange flames begin to dance up out of the 75 to 100 different species of prairie plants that cover a good portion of the Barnhart Farm.

    Prairie burning is an important process that maintains the home of many animals that depend on the prairie to survive. Pheasants, Franklin’s ground squirrels, upland sandpipers, leaf hoppers, moths and butterflies are just a small sampling of the animals and insects that call the prairie home.

    “If the prairie disappears,” says Solecki, “animals that depend on the grasslands begin to disappear also.”

    Tall goldenrod, big bluestem and Indian grass are three of the most common grasses that dominate the prairie landscape here on the Barnhart farm. Right now the grasses are crinkly to the touch and yellow in color, but will become a vibrant green in a few short months. Stiff goldenrod is mixed in with the more common grasses and produces beautiful yellow flowers when it is in bloom. Mixed with the tall grasses is bee balm, part of the mint family. The plant, with a square stem, has leaves that smell of mint when they are crushed between fingers.

    The Barnhart Prairie is home to a variety of different plants, and it does not take a well-trained eye to notice the diversity the area offers. But many people still look at a prairie and only see weeds, says Solecki.

    “Prairies have a lot of texture to them and variety in their appearance,” says Solecki. “It’s not all the same plant continuously.”

    Huge, orange flames erupt 15 to 20 feet above the final section of prairie that Barnhart planned to burn. This section burns the easiest because it was planted back in 1989. After the smoke clears, all that is left of the prairie is ash. Mulberry trees interspersed across the field now stand alone. However, they will not be alone for long as prairie plants will soon break through the soil once again in about a month.

    “It’s just very exciting because you never know what you are going to find there,” says Barnhart. “It’s just a great deal of joy and fun.”