Forest fires raged out of control in several southern states last month, but fire, when controlled, can also be used as a conservation tool.
The Western New York Land Conservancy did that on Nov. 7 when it burned a grassland at the Niagara Escarpment Preserve on Leete Road in Lockport. It was the first the first prescribed burn to be done in Niagara County.
The 10-acre grassland was healthy, brimming with tall native grasses that gave wildlife a place to hide, eat, rest and nest. It was set on fire because one of the best ways to keep a grassland healthy is to burn it periodically– in a properly executed way. (Don’t try this at home!)
Periodic, prescribed fire “can help prevent the invasion of shrubs and trees and maintain the edge effect along adjoining woodlands and hedgerows,” said Dave Paradowski, Regional Forester with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). “It also helps clear out undesirable, invasive species of plants and insects, increases the availability of nutrients in the soil, and stimulates growth of grasses and perennials. Fire is surprisingly good for these plants and the wildlife that depend on grassland habitat.”
The Niagara Escarpment Preserve burn was run by Applied Ecological Services (AES), a company that has been conducting safe and successful prescribed burns for more than 20 years. AES developed a burn plan specifically for the Niagara Escarpment Preserve that was reviewed and approved by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Forestry Division before the burn is conducted.
“A prescribed burn requires very specific weather conditions,” said Ben Zimmerman of AES. “We had to wait until the wind direction and speed, temperature, and humidity were just right before we were able to conduct the burn.”
Volunteer firefighters from the Olcott and Wright’s Corners Fire Companies provided backup at the burn.
Following the prescribed burn, the grassland portion of the preserve will be reseeded with native wildflowers like asters, turtlehead, anemones, penstemon, lobelia, blue vervain, blazing star and bee balm.
Taking a lesson from nature, humans have used fire as a land management tool for centuries, according the the WNY Land Conservancy. Farmers use fire to revitalize pastures and maintain hedgerows. Forest managers use fire to reduce the risk of uncontrolled wildfires and promote the growth of desirable tree species. Wildlife managers use fire to keep grasslands open for the birds and animals that rely on them for their survival. When humans suppress wildfires, we inadvertently harm entire ecosystems dependent on fire.
“Grasslands serve as nesting habitat for many species of birds, including rare and threatened species such as the Upland Sandpiper and the Henslow’s Sparrow,” said Loren Smith of Buffalo Audubon. “This is an exciting step toward showing the community that fire is a safe and effective tool for improving habitat. I hope this will help clear the way for other organizations to use fire to help maintain other nature preserves and parkland in our region.”
The prescribed burn at the Niagara Escarpment Preserve was made possible thanks to grant funding from US Fish and Wildlife Service. A grant from the Yahoo Community Benefit Fund and Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo will fund the native wildflower seeds and planting.