Why Are We Setting the Ditches on Fire? May 08 2015
Have you ever been driving happily down the road and suddenly found either side of the road is on fire? If so, you might be near prairie land –or in the midst of the apocalypse. Recently, this happened to me. One minute, I was driving home from the grocery store, kicking myself for forgetting paper towels again, and the next minute I thought I might have accidentally stumbled upon the gates of Hades. I learned that there is a logical explanation for this, and researched it so that you don’t have to!
Prairie fires used to occur naturally all the time. If you ever read the “Little House on the Prairie” books, you already know this. These fires are, in fact, a crucial part of the prairie’s lifecycle. Trees and brush slowly take over the prairie lands, creating shade and choking out the other plants. Prairie fires eliminate these invasive pests, and create nutrient rich soil that allows the native tall-grass and flowering plants to return. In other words, by setting these prescribed fires, we are recreating what would naturally happen in the prairie without losing control and burning down half of the county.
So why do we care about restoring prairies anyway? When we (“we” here being the people of the Great Plains states collectively, not me and a band of vigilante planters) replaced prairie lands with crop-planted fields, we lost much of the biodiversity in this region. Many of these plants and animals were an integral part of keeping the land healthy. The flowers and grasses that grow here aren’t just pretty, they’re staples in the ecosystem. They protect the soil from erosion, filter water in underground aquifers to improve water quality, provide habitats to native insects, and put necessary nutrients back into the soil when they decompose. The native insects that live in these prairies are natural predators of many garden and farm pests, and in prairies bees can find more suitable pollen for their honey! Prairies also provide nesting areas for native birds and small mammals that are an essential link in the food chain. By caring for the land with things like controlled burns, we are helping to restore our own little piece of the prairie and helping out our native ecosystems.