It’s been about 3 weeks now since the restoration burn at Devil’s Lake State Park’s Roznos Meadow. The neon green of new life is quickly hiding the black ash that still covers the ground. Last evening we took an exploratory walk through the meadow to see how the recovery was going.
One of the most amazing things about restoration burns is not just how quickly plants return, but the varieties that return. We’ve learned that many native plants, or at least their seeds, can lie in the ground dormant for a hundred years or more! When conditions are right, like right after a prescribed burn, they will sprout right back up. Imagine, life sitting dormant for hundreds of years, suddenly bursting forth and reaching for the sky! Amazing! The bonus for us is that we can learn a bit about the past after a prescribed burn. For instance, if the land was once prairie long before settlers farmed the land and wildfires were suppressed, prairie plants will usually return after the burn.
Last year the folks at the Riverland Conservancy burned the land just across the road from Roznos. (This area is known to many of us as the Merrimac Preserve.) You can imagine at one time, before all of the roads, that this land would have been open and connected. You would think too that the recovery would be identical. If there was a sudden burst of lupine on the Merrimac side last season, then we would expect to see a lot of lupine coming up on the Devil’s Lake side of the road this year. That’s not really what we are seeing. In fact, a large section of of the Devil’s Lake burn area is now covered in… dandelions. Go figure!
Another surprise that we found among the fresh green landscape were areas where woodland, not prairie plants, are returning. This suggests of course that some of this land at least, must not have been prairie but woodlands long before the land was cleared for farming. I often think that in the rush to restore lands to pre-settlement conditions we bias ourselves toward prairies even when there are clear signs that pre-settlement, the land was something altogether different. Be that as it may, the woodland flowers & Mayapples that waited years to come up are in for shock. They won’t last long under the open skies and summer sun.
Signs of life, both former and new are everywhere on the meadow. In the dirt below the fresh grass the land is covered in snail shells! Well, yes, this land was covered in water many millennia ago, but that’s not where these came from. These millions of shells come from the many terrestrial snails that lived on Roznos Meadow before the fire. North America has 500 species of land snails. Here in Wisconsin we have about 100. The restoration burn was a genocide when it came to the land snails. Hopefully the populations will recover quite quickly.
In addition to the snails, it is now clear to see ant colonies rising everywhere on the flat prairie. Animal trails zigzag through the brush. Exposed tunnels created by mice and voles weave underfoot. Coyote tracks and yes, even bones stand out now in the open lands. We found various remains of deer including a scapula (shoulder-blade) and a spine. We found the skull of a squirrel and more oddly maybe, a toe bone that we couldn’t identify. Don’t worry, these critters were long dead before the fire. Mostly likely meals for hungry predators that one would never see if not for the land clearing burn.
If you are an off-trail sort of person, now is the time to explore Roznos Meadow. Soon it will once again be covered in tall prairie grasses, prickly raspberry whips.. and we won’t even mention the deer ticks! For now though, it’s looking really quite beautiful out there. It’s funny, once you become accustom to watching restoration burns and seeing the amazing recoveries, you start seeing the world in terms of what should be burned next….. Yeah, but don’t get any ideas!!
**Click any image to enlarge!