At one time Wisconsin had over 2.1 million acres of tall grass prairie, reduced to only 0.5 percent of it’s original ecosystem today, often degraded and fragmented into small plots. It was the result years ago of farmers moving in and plowing the fertile prairie soil and of fire suppression, which led to the invasion of woody vegetation. Luckily, some have a vision of the importance in restoring our prairies and see value and importance in preservation, of bringing back rare plants and wildlife and maintaining this diverse genetic resource. And…their beauty.
As stewards of the land, Rick and Toni Sturtz have this vision-after acquiring an old historic farmstead near the ghost town of Columbia (in southwest Clark County), they set forth an effort to create a place to live in harmony with the natural environment all the while upgrading their home and surrounding outbuildings. The Sturtz’s have unparalleled vision and creativity, along with a generous spirit and willingness to share with others and future generations. Their tall grass restoration project is not only for them, but for others to catch a glimpse of what parts of the state looked like a hundred or more years ago. This was the home to rare grassland birds and wildlife, grasses like Big Bluestem, and Switchgrass, not to mention the beauty of native flowers. Within a few short years, converting this fallow 35 acre field into prairie has attracted everything from Cranes, Northern Harriers and Bald Eagles to endangered Ornate Box Turtles.
Fire plays a crucial role in maintaining prairie ecosystems. At one time lightning or Native Americans burned dead vegetation and woody material promoting plant growth and returning nutrients to the ground. A call from Rick a few days ago, gave me a heads up that a prescribed burn would take place on their prairie and perhaps I would be interested. I was anxious for the opportunity, for it would provide a rich environment for some photography but also pique my interest in the process of a prairie burn.
The local volunteer fire department took this as a chance to train new firefighters on wildfire control and very quickly set up and burned a perimeter back burn against the wind. Once a safe “black ground” border was established, the fire could be spread across the entire prairie and in an astonishingly quick time, the entire 35 acres was burned. I was amazed at the sound-the loud crackle and echo off the surrounding forest of the dead grass quickly igniting, and the speed of the flames shooting skyward. I have a whole new appreciation of wildfire, its dangers and of firefighters who battle them.
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