email alerts

To receive email alerts for new posts of this blog, enter your address below.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

May 14, 2022 - Shaw Woods - What We Did And What We Saw

Below, we pull some metal fenceposts ... and some garlic mustard.

But after months of prairie burns and brush bonfires, today richness explodes into magic. 

It's a time for learning - and re-thinking. 

We start with the photo below, what does it make you think? What does it mean? 

We're thrilled by the holy beauty of spring unfolding. And yet this photo also indicates trouble. A diminution of diversity. More about that later.

Next we are stuck by the large number of conservative species in little Shaw Woods. For example: 
This treasure could escape your notice at first. Check out those big leaves at the top - and the spherical flower clusters rising from the base - formerly common, a rare plant these days - sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis). People made root-beer from it ... and for that purpose its name was shortened to "sasparilla."

To find a high-quality woods next to high-quality prairie and savanna remnants is rare. This woods is packed with doll's-eyes, long-beaked sedge (Cx. sprengelii), long-awned woodgrass, and a long list of classy species (more of which you'll see below).  

As for the Friends, we make space for the reproduction of such species with the winter cut-and-burn work and, today: 
... making the most of a once-a-year expanded Garlic-Mustard-Pullers team.

We happily employ brawn to pull fenceposts - the last stage in removing a rusting metal fence that has long been a useless eyesore in this part of the preserve. 

At break time, we eat treats, relax, teach, and discuss. 

It's increasingly obvious to all that this is not just any old wild place. Richness survives here.
The diversity in this photo is that of a fine woodland. Rue anemone (lower left, seven petal flower, in this case; they vary) and trillium (three petals) bloom now. Soon the wild columbine (see rue-like leaves towering above the anemone's) will be attracting humming birds with its pink flowers. The yellow mayapple fruits (forming under the big, divided leaves, top right) will attract hungry mammals of many kinds, including us. Penn sedge (grass-like) holds the turf together.

Here the white trillium is joined by the pale foliage and yellow flowers of the blue cohosh. Those yellow flowers don't stand out, but the deep blue fruits will make their statements from summer through fall. Also in this photo are the developing leaves of later-to-bloom wild geranium, Chicago leek, and false Solomon's-seal, all indicators of woodland health. But here - the narrative goes dark. (Sound of eery music, please.) Dead wood is heaped in many places in this preserve, snuffing out quality plants and the animals that depend on their leaves and fruits. Yet more insidiously (eery music now swells). The bad plant in this photo (trust us, if you can't tell it by its leaves) is the rank tall goldenrod, a killer species. It and its ilk now dominate some areas where buckthorn was removed, years ago. Why?

Other areas have nothing left. The next two photos below tell that story: 
In the foreground is bare dirt, all that's left in one of the areas where we cut brush last winter. The invasives had killed all. To the top right, the dark brush remains - to be cut next winter. 

Friends, Lake Forest Open Lands, volunteers, staff, and contractors have launched a major restoration initiative at Shaw, including the woods, savanna, wetland, and prairie. The blighted result visible below was revealed by Open Lands' contractor work with mighty machines:
This large piece in the center of the Nature Preserve (between Shaw Woods and Shaw Prairie) had its brush cut last winter. Long ago, this was prairie, marsh, and savanna. Ditching and brush had eliminated the natural ecosystem nearly entirely. To use medical metaphor, this was major surgery. Our challenge now is to prevent this land from falling to the invasives. A battle awaits.

In the areas below, brush was removed many years ago, but today it's essentially "all weeds." We try to avoid this by sowing the right seed to facilitate recovery of biodiversity:
Indeed, so that today's volunteer team could get in here, the week before (not seen here) the regular ever-so-dedicated Friends volunteers cut out great quantities of prickly briars. We pulled the scattered garlic mustard, especially from the highest-quality and most sensitive-to-trampling areas. Today is for big concentrations. Next week we'll do more detail and "quality control." 

About those briars: Are they natural? Emphatically yes and no. 

The word briars applies to native and alien species of dewberries, raspberries, blackberries, and other prickly, shrubby fruits. They taste good and play important roles in shrubland ecosystems. But the ones that tend to fill recently cleared area are impediments to recovery of classic open woods or open prairie.

From the perspective of biodiversity conservation, the vast beds of trillium-and-little-else are also ambiguous at best. In the seminal Vegetation of Wisconsin, John T. Curtis describes concentrations of these great white trilliums as a near-terminal stage of what happens to an oak woods as it becomes too dark for most of its flora. (And, though the botanist Curtis didn't say so, the darkening also gradually wipes out the associated invertebrates, other animals, fungi, etc.). Our strategies seek to maintain large numbers of trilliums as the richness of other species returns as well.

In the photo below, another wrinkle. Notice all those stems that stand alone:
At least seven stems have been chewed off by the deer. In some woods, the trilliums have been wiped out by too many mouths. The existing programs to control deer numbers are good and deserve to be supported.

Here a deer exclusion cage will protect the trilliums inside. We'll be able to compare inside and outside from year to year. 
As we stewards head into very different summer work, as we often do, we take a bit of time to study what today's ecosystem tells us about needs for next fall and winter. 
Here the trilliums gradually fade out, and the brush shade deepens, and no quality plants survive.

Here, even right next to the trail, a rich turf stops abruptly, as brush and piled logs take over. There will be plenty of accomplishment begging for our attention when the cold returns. 

Here some of us are getting ready to pose - twenty-one of the great souls who did today's work.

Here, some of us are posing. We have great will and intention, to change the world, for the better in this case. 

Everyone is invited to join in this great work (and quickly learn to be a leader, if you'd like, as more leaders are what the ecosystem needs most.) After love, that is. 



Friday, May 6, 2022

Garlic Mustard - five years later

In 2017, many of us noticed that a major invasive, garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), seemed to be drastically declining or gone - as discussed in a 2017 post.

Here's an update for 2022. In some areas garlic mustard is still gone. In others this bad plant still rages. 

It seems unlikely that a disease was the principal control, though it would be good to read any studies or observations that suggested otherwise.

In the map below, a "0" indicates a place where garlic mustard is now gone from an area of Somme Prairie Grove (SPG) where for years there was masses of it - thigh-high and solid. There were acres of such ecosystem misery. At other nearby sites, this invasive seems still to be a major problem. 

We compiled the map below while doing other work. (If infestations were minor, we pulled when we mapped them.) The numbers show how many garlic mustard plants were found at the points indicated. A "0" indicates a point where we remember finding garlic mustard in the past but where we found none in 2022. We found only 22 plants, most of them very small, in the southern half of the site, where there had been thousands every year for many years. There are still more than 1,000 plants along the northern edge of the site. 

So, indeed, at SPG there are still small areas where it's dense. But those areas all have one thing in common. They had their brush recently cleared; they're in the rough early stages of restoration; and there is not yet a dense conservative turf to compete with the invasive mustard.

Over the years, we have carefully pulled every garlic mustard we could find in the better-quality areas, as we are doing this year. But it seems impossible that we find them all, especially the very little ones that still can make a few dozen nasty seeds. Thus it seems that, if we pull the big ones from higher quality areas, we can largely eliminate it there. 

To emphasize this point, the map below shows the same 2022 data but with heavy infestations from previous years shown in yellow. Note that, in some areas with former heavy infestations, we could fine no garlic mustard plants this year.

The yellow areas are just from memory. (See Endnote 1 for comments on the science.) 

Some of the areas that have dense concentrations now also had it dense for years, so it seems unlikely that disease build-up is what's conquering it. 

Tentatively, there are two likely explanations for this positive report:

1. We switched from a strategy of "get as many people to pull as many plants as possible" to a strategy of "herding invasives." We focused most of our attention on areas where there is the least. Thus we remove the outliers and drive the edges back until we can pull the last ones. 

(In the past we often had large numbers of people pulling, and our group trampled many and left many broken off stems to re-sprout and produce a few seeds each. It doesn't take many surviving plants to maintain a dense population. These days, more expert weed-pullers follow up on the big groups.)

2. Perhaps equally important, we have planted full-spectrum seed mixes: common plants and conservatives ... spring, summer, and fall species. All the large garlic mustard populations are now in areas where the restoration is young and new. It seems likely that in the more mature areas, after we pulled all the big ones, competition eliminated the others. 

People with additional garlic mustard observations are invited to comment below or send comments to or here.


Endnote 1. On the science.

The rough maps above are our contributions to science on this. The numbers are hard data, in a sense. For the small populations, they are not samples or estimates, they are numbers of counted plants. On the other hand, many small plants were probably missed. In the case of the large populations, we counted some sample areas and then multiplied by the number of such areas in the patch. Those numbers are thus estimates.

In the past, thinking that good science was needed and that good science required the scientific method and statistical significance, we on occasion took data in some of those dense mustard concentrations. We imagined that we'd later go back and resample. That's now obviously not remotely worth the effort, unless perhaps by someone working toward a degree or for an academic publication. For us to do the work of re-sampling just to say that an area once had 100% mustard cover and now has 0% seems like a waste. We are learning what we want at SPG without the numbers. 

It seems likely that garlic mustard is as widespread a problem as it is because our woodlands generally are degrading, losing diversity, because of lack of fire. The garlic mustard could be seen as more of a symptom than the problem.

But more data from more varied sites and management regimes is needed to draw more general conclusions. 


Thanks to Eriko Kojima for proofing and edits. 


Friday, April 22, 2022

Mud Is Bad

 The poet was wrong about nature when he wrote:


when the world is mud-luscious 



Mud is death. It is not a normal part of the ecosystem. 

In nature, soil is clothed with diverse plants. Slightly underneath is a dense network of rootlets and other soil biota, tangled and supportive. It holds us up just fine when we walk. (See Endnote 1 for minor exceptions.)

Even a herd of people or animals passing over a bit of ground doesn't normally make the wound that we experience as mud. All those feet may loosen the turf, and soil may be visible here and there, but nature quickly heals, ready for the next herd of us. 

What makes mud is too many feet trampling wet ground too often. The resulting open wound is troubling and ugly to a wise eye. Species die in the area of this injury. Not just their tops, the roots die. On slopes, erosion may even form a gulley, removing the soil too, sometimes many feet deep.

Especially in a Nature Preserve, mud is a defeat. We restrict visitation or harden trails to save biota, including living soil. The photo below, from Harms Woods Nature Preserve, shows what we don't want:

Here the path has gotten wider and wider as people trample further and further to the side. 

Some people say, “Oh, don’t worry. I have boots that will handle mud just fine.” But that’s not the point. We don’t design trails for the sake of people's footwear. We do it for the ecosystem. 

The photo below shows one solution, an imperfect one:

This example is from Somme Prairie Grove, which is visited mostly by people who come to appreciate its wild plants and animals. These folks tend to be careful, respectful, even reverent to some degree.  

But in the above photo, the tree-trunk “pavers” are easily visible and not entirely comfortable to walk on. They are either too thick, too far apart, or perhaps just not yet as settled in as they will be after a year or two of foot traffic. Some of our trails, once channels of mud, were outfitted with buckthorn pavers which are now invisible under a restored path turf. 

For a primer in how to install pavers, click here and go to Endnote 2

We reinforce trails when mud starts to form. A more successful trail in spring is shown below:

The savanna turf here (with its many rare and endangered plant species) is untrampled outside the footpath. The trail surface itself is carpeted with a plant called Path Rush – which in fact grows only in animal-created (including human-created) paths. There are pavers here too. But they are narrower, appropriate to this less-wet area. And those narrower pavers have sunk below the path-rush-and-soil surface. No one notices that this trail has a crafted structure. Preferably, footpath composition should be invisible when possible, with path rush growing between the pavers, and not bumpy to walk on. 

You can help maintain these trails just by walking. Here are some basic principles for Somme:

  1. On wet days, if the path-rush-surface is breaking down, it’s too wet to walk that path. One (best?) option: Turn around, and come back another day. Another option at Somme: Walk on the edge of the trail. Natural footpaths here are about ten inches wide. If you walk ten inches to the right or left of the existing path while it's vegetated, that area too may succeed to path rush. Such a path, being twice as wide, could handle twice the foot traffic as the original. Note: I'm not suggesting here that people walk to the side if the side too is getting muddy. Don't do that. Turn around. Go back. 
  2. For people to pass each other, the slower walker should step just off the trail and let the other(s) pass. This courtesy should have a minor impact on the ecosystem, especially if that conservationist's feet try to avoid the most special plants there, as many of us try to do. 

Other opinions and principles

One conservation source writes: 

"Don’t destroy the beauty by walking off trail. …The trails will sometimes get muddy. Stay on the trail anyway. Don’t widen the trail by walking to the side to try to avoid the mud. Dress for the mud. Relish walking in the mud."

The U.S.Forest Service (white Mountain National Forest website) says:

“Good boots are designed to get muddy! Walk through the mud and stick to the center of the path … To prevent damaging the environment, turn around when the trail is extremely muddy. Soon it will dry out and you’ll be able to enjoy the hike. Whatever you do, don’t widen the trail or damage vegetation by walking around the muddy areas.” 

The New England Mountain Bike Association writes

If we ride (on mud), the damage to the trail could be permanent. The mineral soils will be churned up, and rain and gravity will wash these soils away, leaving a mess of exposed roots and rocks. If the trail is really soft, our wheels leave sunken tracks which could channel into ruts and carry the soils away. If we hike, our heels and boots will dig deep into the trails and help push the soils downhill. Either way, it's the trail that loses, so please show some respect and patience."

On many spring days, the Chicago Area Mountain Bike Association shows all trails closed: "too soft or wet to ride." 

The Forest Preserve District of Cook County website has a section on Trails Rules and Etiquette that flatly states: “Trail usage is prohibited in muddy conditions.” 

How do you know if a trail is too muddy?

In the photo below, the path was too soft:

More walking by more people (especially those those who step vigorously with cleated soles) will kill the remaining scattered path rush. Indeed, previous walking in too-soft conditions has already killed most of the path rush that once comprised the turf on this trail. 

On the Harms Woods trail below, the impacts of varied walkers tells a tale:

Some people walk directly through the mud. Others have gone well to the side, killing the vegetation there too. I suppose if I were walking this trail I'd walk on the path rush that has survived in the green strip between the two denuded strips. Is there a better solution here? Would the wide diversity of people who come here just for a hike read trail suggestions on a sign or online? 

In the photo below, a Harms footpath crosses a ravine:

Stewards have tried various approaches to challenges like this. Perhaps the best choice would be to move the trail so that it traverses slopes rather than going straight up and down? But that choice would destroy a lot of high quality rare vegetation. 

The photo below from Somme Woods shows a bridge over a stream that is a rushing torrent after heavy rains. A bridge of rot-resistant black locust logs is held in place by stakes driven into the muck. Passers-by who don't quite understand how this works best have added miscellaneous wood. That seems to be a fact of nature, in this case human nature. If the additions work okay, we leave them. 

The above approach is sometimes used to cross wider wet areas. In this case, the "coin pavers" came from a large oak that fell across the trail and needed to be cleaned up. 

By mid-summer the less-heavily-used Somme Prairie Grove paths often have natural vegetation hanging over the sides. These path rush paths are easy to follow when you're there - but often nearly invisible in photos. 


Visitors don't think about the trail. They are immersed in the ecosystem - and happy to inhabit it. 


Endnote 1. Minor exceptions.

Is mud natural? Buffalos and elephants make sometimes muddy wallows. They cover very limited part of their landscapes and are not features we need to concern ourselves with in 21st Century tallgrass region biodiversity conservation. Drying ephemeral ponds can become muddy when deer troop down to drink. Let's not quibble about such details. In our precious tallgrass woods and prairie preserves, we want to make best use of every inch of this rare land, for both aesthetic inspiration and biodiversity conservation. Mud sucks. 

Endnote 2 "Trail Design"

There are many good trail-design references. They all agree that one of the most basic principles is for trails to "traverse" slopes obliquely, so that water crosses the trail - rather than running down it and turning the path into an eroding stream. In other words, trails should not go directly up or down slopes. There's a lot more to trail design, for people who want to learn. Just as some conservationists focus on legal protections, others on rare species, or fire, or invasives control methods - there are many sub-specialities worth paying attention to. No one has to master every detail. But some of us would be wise to focus on making nature accessible and appreciated sustainably - to people with feet.  

It makes a difference whether trail use is light or heavy, hilly or flat, dry or wet. Worst impacts come from horses and vehicles. Next worst are runners and bikes (in the wrong weather, especially on poorly designed trails). Slow walking (while observing, studying, and appreciating) has little impact under most conditions.

Some nature preserve trails in some areas are mowed a few feet wide. This approach makes sense in some areas, especially where foot traffic is fairly heavy. One size does not fit all. 


Thanks to Eriko Kojima, Christos Economou, Rebeccah Hartz, and Cathy Garness for proofing and edits. 

Facebook Comments

Andrew Zwick asks
Is there an ecological reason, Steve, that Somme doesn’t have a good trail system like Harms and other reserves?

S. Packard responds
My understanding of your question, Andrew, is that the "good" trails at Harms Woods are the wide, vehicle-accessible, gravel-surface trails used by horses and bicycles as well as hikers. Many people appreciate them. But even at Harms, most people who go there for nature use the narrower footpaths.

Somme Prairie and Somme Prairie Grove are legally protected Illinois Nature Preserves. They are part of the less than 1/10th of 1% of "The Prairie State" that retains highest-quality natural ecosystems. To make wide trails there would destroy too much of that nature. It would also, in the minds of many, dilute the nature experience that many seek in going to such places. 

Ten-inch-wide footpaths destroy little nature. That fact makes is reasonable to design such trails to make a good deal more of the preserve accessible than would be tolerable using the wide vehicle-accessible trails. More importantly, such trails allow people to be "in nature." Grasses and flowers brush our legs when we walk. Butterflies, snakes, tiger beetles, and all manner of nature (including ticks sometimes, of course, unfortunately) are right with us. 

It's a different kind of experience. The Forest Preserves, wisely, provide both kinds. 

More Facebook Comments

S. Packard responds
When Bill Koenig was the staff Volunteer Coordinator for the Cook County Forest Preserves, he proved himself exceptionally wise, thoughtful, and creative as he sought solutions for the constantly changing challenges of the preserves. Thanks in part to Bill, Kelly Trease, and Ralph Thornton, volunteer stewardship grew as a culture that empowered competent volunteers to take on major responsibilities, including their leadership work with staff to design and maintain trails. 

Conservation landowners have often had "one size fits all" trails policies. A variety of creative solutions to trails needs and challenges would make sense, considering how varied the preserves are: small vs. large, surrounded by housing vs. surrounded by farms and other open land, flat vs. hilly, wet soils vs. dry, filled with endangered species and communities vs. former farmland, etc. But it's difficult to follow up on such potentials given how few are the qualified staff who have the responsibilities for ecosystem health, public safety, and such basic needs. Bit by bit, progress is made and better solutions emerge as staff and volunteers collaborate to build this region's rich culture of conservation.  

Thursday, April 7, 2022

In the Heat of Battle

Bell Bowl Prairie – a report from the front

April 2022

Our Goal - Make Peace and Keep It - Before the Bulldozers Arrive

Much depends on our Governor and Senators. They’ve said it's important to save Bell Bowl Prairie, but so far their help has been temporary.

Even some conservation officials said the prairie would surely be bulldozed last fall “unless there’s a miracle.” It's still under threat. Any minute. 

When public demand was raised to a high level, Governor Pritzker and both Senators spoke out, influentially. (See links, below.) Why not close the deal? What are they waiting for?


Governor Pritzker controls sufficient funding (and politics). He could make permanent protection happen. The Greater Rockport Airport Authority needs Illinois state funds.  

Senators Durbin and Duckworth both have recognized that the conservation of this irreplaceable treasure is in the public interest. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Federal Aviation Administration play important roles here. They’re the principal reason that the destruction of our finest gravel prairie remnant wasn’t bulldozed already. 

This prairie is an irreplaceable ecosystem with hundreds of rare plant and animal species that deserve to survive.

Where’s action needed now, to resolve the stalemate?  

… Individuals are writing “letters to the editor” and “op-eds” as well as individual letters to local, state, and national politicians.  As a result, many newspapers, radio stations, and TV reporters cover Bell Bowl Prairie. Now National Geographic has joined in.

… People are showing up at Airport board meetings, letting airport official and local mayors know that win/win solutions (for jobs, the economy, and the ecosystem) are at hand and needed.

… An inspired and creative team of educators and students are working on a postcard campaign. 

… Local Rockford people are developing a “guerrilla art” campaign, through which people post Save Bell Bowl Prairie messages on street signs, light polls, etc. 

On April 15ththe “forces of solidarity with the environment” are celebrating the emergence of the queens! Rusty-patch bumblebees have been resting, waiting all winter long. Now they start to hum through the air once again, power up on nectar and pollen, and start to build their 2022 colonies. This has happened every year for time immemorial. We don’t want this year to be the last. A part of its assault, the Airport Authority has barred the stewards and the public from entering the prairie, whether for appreciation or to give it the care it needs. So for our April 15th “watch party” - we will stand on the side of a public road, with binoculars and cameras with long lenses. We will learn, enjoy, and make a point. 

Save Bell Bowl Prairie will also celebrate Earth Day on April 23rd with giant bumblebee puppets, a post card campaign, and kids’ events at Severson Dells Nature Center’s Pollinator Palooza festival. Related events are planned at Northwestern University and under the leadership of Rising Tide Chicago. 

Plans are under way for a demonstration on May 1st at Governor Pritzker’s office or mansion in Chicago. He’s our friend. But he needs more public support to get this job done. Check later for details here.

Please write to Pritzker, Durbin, and Duckworth, 

show up at events near you, 

and lend a hand.

Who’s Leading the Charge?

Congratulations to every person and group who’s leading the charge. Jennifer Kuroda and Sinnissippi Audubon got it started. Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves and Illinois Native Plant Society (especially cassi saari and Katie Kucera who launched the public action phase and the website that still supports it). Natural Land Institute for long-term care and principal funding for the lawsuit which, if nothing else, is a powerful impediment to destruction for now (but also limits their actions). Illinois Environmental Council led petition and writing campaigns. Liz Anna Kozik donated a ton of great ourtreach artwork. Amy Doll, Jillian Neece, and Robb Telfer of Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves are supporting events and initiatives as the campaign proceeds. And most of the impact comes from hundreds of public-spirited conservationists (including you?).

How About the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR)?

Some of Illinois conservation staff have been good leaders on this. Our taxes pay their salaries to defend natural resources. But politics have limited their abilities and DNR and Nature Preserve staff have not been able to take a leadership role in this effort.  Perhaps this is unavoidable. Some powers depend on “The People” (us). 

Unfortunately, some staff have proposed trivial “face-saving” measures. In Sympathy for the Devil, Mick Jaeger sings of Pilot “washing his hands and sealing his fate.” There’s a parallel here. Some have proposed apparently justifying the destruction by digging up a few plants and moving them somewhere … or planting some “bumblebee habitat.” It’s good to plant habitat. But it is not good for conservation officials to appear to be publicly making excuses for egregious destruction of an irreplaceable high-quality ecosystem remnant. Bulldozing Bell Bowl Prairie would be the worst destruction by a public agency at least since the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory made the stakes clear. We need to be supporting all officials who can help. 

What Can I Do?!?

Don't just read about this! Take action!

95,000 people have already signed a nation-wide and international petition.

Also sign the Civic Shout-out Petition.

If you can rally your organization, add to the 125 groups that have joined forces

Add your voice to the campaign by the Illinois Environmental Council

Tweet your State Reps about this state-wide treasure. 

Donate to the legal fund.

Click here for a full list of actions and handy drafts. But don't spend all your time studying. Reach out! Act!

Always, for the latest, see the Save Bell Bowl Prairie website. 

The prairie is on the slope in this photo.
Bulldozers are poised. 

Most experts believe that the bulldozer destruction and fragmenting this small prairie in two would be the beginning of the end. 
It's ridiculous. As this poster shows, all they need to do re-direct the road to where it's been.
Then they can go ahead with airport improvements.
Graphic by Liz Anna Kozik

The Rusty-patched Bumblebee - on the Federal Endangered list - is one of hundreds of plant and animals species your actions could help. 

For more facts and photos, see two previous posts, here and here. But don't just read! Please act!


Thanks to Robb Telfer, Amy Doll, and Eriko Kojima for helpful proofing and edits. Your comments would be appreciated too!

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Burn at Shaw Prairie - March 21, 2022

 It starts with a match - and some fuel - at 1:35 pm. 

Initial cast of characters:
Three stewards - trained in prescribed fire.
Christos Economou - left - holding drip torch.
Monica Gajdel - center - also holding second drip torch.
Heather Decker - right - holding flapper. 

Heather (in yellow) is today's burn boss. It's a hard job that requires knowledge, experience, and good coordination and people skills. She's got 'em - along with a crew of six additional trained fire managers. We start in an area of brushy, recovering savanna. To control the fire, we start at the downwind tip and send two crews to backfire (see Endnote 1) in opposite directions, to assure that the fire stays contained in the planned area. Todays burn will restore health and quality to two key areas of Shaw Prairie. 

This is an easy burn, so Heather does a lot of training and rotation of jobs. We need more people who have this experience and ability. (Would you like to help with this important work? If so, come and volunteer and learn.) Now Eriko Kojima has the drip torch and is spreading the fire along a brushy edge. Mostly the flames just go out when they reach the end of fine fuels (especially grasses) at the edge of the brush. It would take a much drier, hotter, windier day for those thickets to explode with fire. But fire could creep out of the burn unit under oak trees, where the crispy oak leaves could carry a low fire, so the crew makes sure these backfires are all out before Eriko and her drip torch moves ahead.

We started at the north end, with a south and southwest wind. Now the fire along the brushy edge is extinguished, and the main backfire moves into the wind, toward the larger prairie.

At this point, with the backfire widening our no-fuel, burned-out strip in this direction (see smoke in distance), we can light up the middle of this precious remnant prairie. 

Now with the drip torch, Molly Marz drops fire through the middle of the main area. It's now 4:34 in the afternoon. We have waited for the warmest, driest, windiest weather of the day. That's partly so the smoke will rise best and least inconvenience the neighbors. But it's also because this hotter fire will best combat the brush and facilitate best prairie growth (did you see that link to "why burn?").  

4:35. And now I, the photographer, for your viewing pleasure and my own, stay put for a while. The next few photos show what happens, a few minutes apart. 

4:36. The fire spreads downwind rapidly. The flames in this very high quality prairie are not high on this day of modest fire conditions. The poorer quality areas with taller grass mixed with brush had bigger fires. But in this high-quality area, the results will be most beautiful and important. 

4:37. Now the fire is mostly smoke. But the flames don't have far to go.

4:38 Within a minute, the main fire is out, most of the smoke has risen into the atmosphere, and the prairie ecosystem breathes a sigh of relief. This will be a good year for the heart of Shaw Prairie. 

In those five minutes, the most important work of the day was done. The very-high-quality heart of this preserve is ready to face the 2022 growing season. But there's much left to do before this blessed day is complete. 

Here, we light along the footpath at the south end of today's burn.

Sometimes ... this marshy section is too wet, and Christos steps into the vegetation a few feet to find dry sedges. Sometimes ... the flames spring up a bit fast and he winces his face a few more inches away from the heat. 

At 4:45:29 PM, these edge flames start to consume a tangle of brush, mostly briars and dogwood shrubs. 

The flames are very hot and could build fast, but a backfire has already crept through the downwind fuel, so by 4:45:36 - seven seconds later according to the camera - it's about over. 

4:46. Just smoke left.

At 5:00, three and a half hours after we started, the fire was essentially out and all but a few wisps of smoke cleared. Little flames from brush stumps, here and there, burn down and out. The crew extinguishes any that look like they'd make passers-by uncomfortable. 

Today was an inspiring day for the heart of Shaw Prairie. It had not burned in many years. In the photo above, the area to the right mostly did not burn because over the years it had grown so dense with brush that no fuel of dried grasses and flowers remained. We have sowed locally gathered seed to restore those areas. This fine prairie will produce vastly more seed this year, as that's what prairies do in response to fire. More needy areas of this fine preserve will benefit from all that seed. We stewards feel psyched about this whole next growing season. Yes!

For more detail on why we burn and how we control fire, click here. (Once again I'm plugging that new burn post. Many readers of this blog know it already. But most people don't. Feel free to send it to people you think could use the info.)


Thanks to Ryan London (Vice President of Conservation) and the whole team from Lake Forest Open Lands for fine leadership in this new collaboration with Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves. 

This burn brought to you by:
Heather Decker - senior restoration ecologist
Christos Economou - steward
Monica Gajdel - steward
Eriko Kojima - steward
Kevin Kerrigan - restoration ecologist
Molly Marz - restoration technician 

Interested in Burning and Stewardship?

We volunteer stewards always welcome new colleagues. Find out more details on Shaw, burns, and what you might help with at:

For the Shaw volunteer schedule, check out: