Burning grass part of teaching environmental biology

Photo provided by Heidi Leuszler | Natural Sciences

Photo provided by Heidi Leuszler | Natural Sciences

Peter Floess

Staff Writer

Parkland’s environmental biology courses make use of an on-site prairie to inform students on the delicate ecosystem and show them the means through which such an ecosystem is maintained.

This prairie can be seen across from the east entrance to the U-wing.

Heidi Leuszler teaches environmental biology at Parkland. She says the grasses are those one would find in a prairie environment with moderate moisture.

“Parkland prairies are all mesic tallgrass prairie,” Leuszler says. “Mesic means that there is a medium amount of water in the soil, and tallgrass is simply that the grasses are tall. Prairies are classified in two different ways: by soil type, and water availability.”

A feature of prairies is that setting them aflame is actually helpful to them.

“Prairies are a fire-maintained ecosystem, which means that if we want to keep prairies around, we have to burn them,” says Leuszler. “Burning keeps out tree saplings because the young trees are usually susceptible to fire. If a tree grows tall, it will shade out the prairie species and turn into a savanna or a forest.

“When prairies are first planted, burning is required every year to kill weed plants that would outcompete the tiny, slow-growing prairie plants. Burning gives the prairie plants a spring advantage over the weeds, and hopefully the prairie plants will grow strong enough to outcompete the weeds.”

Burnings are only required every year for the first few years, however.

“After a few years, you can burn once in a while, and eventually, you only need to burn when it seems like it needs it,” Leuszler says. “A prairie manager would know what signs to look for to help determine when burning is required. There is also evidence that burning helps to return nutrients back to the soil faster that decomposition, and warms up the soil in the spring.”

In Leuszler’s environmental biology class, one subject covered is ecology. She wants students to come away from the ecology unit with an understanding of how prairie managers and biologists use fire to maintain prairie ecology.

“Burning the prairies is one tool they use to maintain the health and stability of the prairies, so I want the students to be exposed to it,” Leuszler says.

Leuszler wants students to gain an appreciation for all the good prairies have done and why they should be protected.

“It is also important that we know our place,” Leuszler says. “Prairies are what made our amazing soils in the Midwest, and they deserve our respect. If the public doesn’t understand how prairies work, and how they are maintained, and why we should put energy and resources into preserving some of them, they won’t understand why organizations fight to protect them, and why regulations allow the tools to protect them.”

Leuszler explains that zoning laws are changing to favor prairies.

“Even now, policies are changing so zoning laws in town require landscapers to use a certain percentage of native plants in their projects. These natives are prairie plants, and that new policy allows for burning.”

Leuszler is trained in prairie burning and wants to emphasize to students the importance of safety when burning prairies.

“I also want students to see how dangerous this tool is,” Leuszler states. “I have been trained to light and maintain prairie fires, and I also model safe practices so no one is just lighting their backyard on fire.”

The mesic tallgrass prairie is being watched over this semester by groundkeeper Thomas Harrison.

For those interested in improving the natural areas around Parkland, Leuszler encourages people to email at hleuszler@parkland.edu.