Saturday, November 17, 2012

Burn at Somme Prairie Grove - Quick Report

November 14, 2912

Top priorities were three high quality wetlands. 
For months the overall weather has been dry, dry, dry. 
This was our first opportunity to burn our best wetlands in three decades.

Here is the Swale Pond? Can a pond go up in smoke? More on that later. But first, note the difference between backfire and headfire. With 20-foot flames, the headfire is running with the wind, partly obscured by smoke. Can you see the backfire? It’s creeping towards us, mostly one-foot flames barely visible above the dried sedges.

But those twenty-foot flames are heading toward an oak grove. Should we worry about what will happen when that wall of fire hits the trees?

No need to worry. Oak woods fires are different from wetland fires. Here the head fire (on the right) isn’t much bigger than the backfire. This woods burn is a cool one, because we had a bit of snow a day earlier. The oak leaves, lying flat, are still damp. In contrast, dead grasses are surrounded by moving air and have dried out quickly. Especially today, the low fire in the bur oak woods won’t hurt the oak trunks.

Where oaks stand in the grassland, it’s a different story. Scarlet oaks, like the ones in the background, keep their leaves all winter and have thin bark on their trunks.

This scarlet oak looks like the Bible’s burning bush. Even such a mild back-burn through thin fuel torched this one. But don’t feel bad for it. A scarlet oak loves to burn. It’s a “fire tree” that wouldn’t be able to compete here at all without combustion clearing the competition from time to time. It will re-sprout vigorously and grow bigger each year, until some future fire clears the competition and gives it a new start, once again.

The big tree here is a cottonwood. This species survives the burn by growing in ponds. Though dry now, the pond that this cottonwood stands in had too little fuel to start the tree on fire.

A dead, dry tree lying in the grass is another story. This year, the old hulk of a huge downed cottonwood finally met its maker.

In the foreground, believe it or not, we’re looking at another seasonal wetland, the Pothole Pond, which is knee-deep in spring when we usually burn. In the spot where I stand to take this photo, teal and wood ducks swim among chorus frogs and blue-spotted salamanders in April and May. The fuel that’s burning here is a plant called “floating manna grass.” In spring it floats. Now it burns.

The Swale Pond is an older, more mature, more vegetated wetland and has denser fuel.  Here the head-fire is just starting. [swale fire early]

Though deeper than the Pothole Pond, the denser fuel makes a much hotter fire.

The entire pond burned in just a couple of minutes. This is probably the first time since the reign of the Potawatomi that this wetland and its rare, fire-dependent plants have burned.

The black towers here are made by tussock sedge. A great diversity of wetland plants thrive here - some of them very rare and fire dependent. We can’t wait to watch the ecology respond to this too-long-overdue burn in the years ahead.

Here in the uplands, the tussocky bumps are made by dropseed grass. Notice the burned stems of shrubs. If this area burns frequently, the shrubs will be suppressed, and an open grassland will thrive.

But what happened here? On the edge of the Swale Pond, the fire just went out when where the grasses thinned at the edge of our biggest shrubland, the Bird Thicket. Without the fuel of either grasses or oak leaves, this thicket would burn only under extreme conditions. Patches of unburned ground are part of the “pryo-diversity” that makes for ecological diversity.

To a steward, getting the burn successfully done is a great relief and a great pleasure. Though fire is dramatic and beautiful in itself, the main beauty will be the unfolding of the flowers, shrubs, trees, birds, butterflies and all the biodiversity of rare nature that will thrive here yet more bountifully in 2013, thanks to this invigorating fire. 


Many thanks to the people who made this fire effective and safe: 
especially John McCabe who manages the fire program 
of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County 
and Patrick McCrae who led a hard-working crew 
from Pizzo and Associates (an ecological restoration company 
that did this work under contract with the FPD).

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Where Have All the Dollars Gone?

Where have all the gentians gone?
Long time passing …
Where have all the buntings gone?
Long time ago …
Where have all the bureaucrats gone?
Writing each other emails, every one.
When will they ever learn?
When will we learn !?!

We had not expected an eco-shocker to come out of the budget hearings. Oh yes, there were little shocks, like the budget for ecosystem restoration was reduced by 6%. That’s not a good thing certainly, given that un-cared-for forest preserves are deteriorating. And most are still uncared for.

So, yes, we expected to stand before the Commissioners and say, “Thank you, Sir. Oh, praise you for the pittance, Ma’am. And could you possibly give a tiny bit more?”

Indeed, in recent years many things had gotten better. And the promises have been great! Hopes were brighter.

Of course, there was a grass-roots reason for that. Finally, in 2002 we stopped groveling long enough to do an “audit” of what was happening to nature. Then we held a little press conference. There were front-page headlines, actually, and the County Board President (who, though he hardly knew the forest preserves existed, was, by law, also the president of the Forest Preserve District) sat up and took notice. He may not have known forests, but he knew bad headlines. He fired the head of the District, and a incoming regime was responsive and did a lot of good.

One good was the “Restoration Landscape Budget” – small compared to the need – but way bigger than the nothing that had preceded it.

Of course there was the little problem that, despite repeated requests, we couldn’t get any “actuals” on how the funds got spent. And many important projects seemed not to get much help. “Sorry, we’ve run out of funds this year,” was the all too common refrain. Yet it was comforting to know that $23,682,170 had been appropriated and presumably spent to restore good health to our prairies, wetlands and forests. No doubt, it was being spent, effectively, to get the job done. Don’t you think?

Why does money make a difference to nature? If you start with a high quality ecosystem and leave it alone, it degrades (loses plant species, for example) at about 3% per year. The graph below, the one we released to the press in 2002, shows the result:

That huge mass of orange rightly horrified the Commissioners. 68% poor. These lands are worth billions, and people love them, for nature.

Actually, rather than the orange, the more important numbers were in the green and earth tones – the 32% that was pretty good or easily recoverable. That part was degrading fastest. Much of it needed little beyond an occasional burn. But recovery gets more difficult, more expensive and more iffy as the patient declines.

Forty expert volunteer botanists had done the sampling that produced this summary:

So if this was how the ecosystem looked in 2002. How do you suppose it looks in 2012? “About time to re-do the audit,” many people said. Might have been good to do it earlier, but some feared that wouldn’t have been fair test. Ecosystem healing is slow. Yet now, ten years on, after staff increases and $23 million plus in restoration, surely we should see quality on the rise. Oops.

The shocker came in response to two kinds of complaints. First, people who love the preserves took unkindly to reports that the FPD was planning to divert land to conference centers, zip lines and other non-forest-preserve uses. Since that rankled, conservationists protested perhaps more than they otherwise would the 6% decrease in restoration funds. That’s when the FPD finally released the long-requested “actuals.”  

The officials seemed to expect that people would be comforted to know that the increase wasn’t needed, because it “couldn’t be spent” anyway. Just look: less than half the promised funds get spent.

Hello? What?

Emails began flying: “How can it be that we’ve sat through so many meetings and been told that the money was gone this year?” Or: “I’d been told so many times, by people I trusted, the priority I advocated had simply lost out. The money for that year’d been spent.” Or: “How can we tell lying from don’t-care or incompetent?”

Suddenly we were transitioning from: “Where have all the flowers gone?”
To: Something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.

Some people talked in terms of personal betrayal. But the individuals involved mostly didn’t know the details. This is an institution that keeps some cards close to the vest and the rest in its pockets.

The fundamental, unanswerable charge is that the system didn’t work. A crucial $12 million worth of time-sensitive, critically important treatment was withheld from the stressed wildlife and nature that needed it.

What’s next? A serious overhaul is needed. Couldn’t the budget of this little conservation agency be transparent? Will procedures (or people) be put in place to get the healing work done from now on? Will staff have to measure and be responsible for results? Will conservationists and the public be given reports on where and how the funds were spent?

Doesn’t seem too much to ask. 

55,000 acres of orchids, salamanders, tanagers, oaks and flying squirrels need the answer.