WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Managing an Ecosystem

Knox County, IL – Earth Day is used to increase awareness of environmental issues and to promote the need to care for the earth. But managing an ecosystem is sometimes easier said than done.

Organizers of a prairie burn at Green Oaks learned that lesson on an early spring day as they struggled to start fires for a controlled prairie burn.

It rained hard the night before and that made things difficult for Stuart Allison, Professor of Biology, Knox College.

"I thought I'd be okay because it's been so dry lately," said Allison. "I didn't think it had rained enough to damper our plans."

Allison decided to give the sun and wind a couple hours to dry out the prairie a bit. His plan worked. By early afternoon, Allison and a couple dozen student volunteers were able to start fires in the prairie.

The conditions helped the group keep things under control.

"I don't like it when fires are too exciting and they go too fast," said Allison.

Prairie burns are used to control species diversity. They help remove invasive species and allow ground level flora to flourish. Allison says some researchers believe Native Americans conducted prairie burns thousands of years ago in order to keep the landscape clear.

"So we're really doing what Native Americans did, burning in the spring as a way to keep things opened up," said Allison.

He says blackberry plants are a good example of a species that can become a problem. Even though they're native to prairies - normally found on the edge - they can become too dense and change the character of a prairie.

"You lose a lot of the grasses typical to a prairie and it just becomes a blackberry patch," said Allison.

Green Oaks is Knox College's 700-acre biological field station. It's located in central Knox County, south of Victoria.

The Green Oaks prairie was restored in the mid-1950s. Knox College says it's the oldest restored prairie in Illinois and the third oldest in the world.