Burning the invader plants Fire: The DNR plans to scorch 40 acres of scrub pine and grass at Soldiers Delight to help preserve the rare ecosystem of the Baltimore County park.

November 10, 1997|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Flames will sweep across 40 acres of Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area one day this week, burning off grasslands and scrub pines. By spring, verdant new growth will cover the burned area, and the prairie will re-emerge as it was centuries ago, when "the Great Barrens" covered tens of thousands of acres north of Baltimore.

The controlled burn at Soldiers Delight -- a technique once practiced by the area's Native Americans -- is crucial to preserve the largest serpentine grassland and oak savanna ecosystem in the eastern United States, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

Home to more than 30 rare and endangered plant, animal and insect species, the 1,100 acres of serpentine grasslands at Soldiers Delight near Owings Mills are being choked by invading species such as scrub pines, greenbrier and juniper, DNR officials said.

The burn is an efficient way to eliminate those unwanted species while preserving the underlying ecology of the grassland, said Eric C. Schwaab, DNR's director of forests, wildlife and heritage. "The area will be charred for about a month, and experiments have shown that by spring there will be lush new growth," he said. "Some species need fire to grow and survive."

Soldiers Delight, which embraces about 1,700 acres, is the largest of four areas of serpentine grasslands remaining in Maryland. The others are at Robert E. Lee Park in Baltimore County and at two privately owned natural areas in Harford and Cecil counties.

Serpentine rock, Soldiers Delight's major geologic feature, is magnesium silicate, which creates soil as it weathers. Soldiers Delight and what is now the Lee area were major sources of chromite ore in the early 19th century.

Autumnal fire hunts

Before European colonization in the 17th century, serpentine grassland covered most of Baltimore and Harford counties and parts of southern Pennsylvania.

Controlled burning is not new to the area. For thousands of years, American Indians carried out autumnal fire hunts to drive deer to where they could be killed. The grasslands benefited because the fires blocked the advance of woody vegetation, such as Virginia pines, and created patches of bare ground where herbs flourished.

Once the native population began succumbing to European diseases in the early 18th century, it stopped using fire to hunt, DNR researchers said. The grasslands were used for grazing, and the ecosystem that had resulted from thousands of years of burning began to change from prairies to woodlands.

Grasses and plants found homes in the dry, nutrient-poor soils until the invader plants migrated north in the 18th century. As the newcomer species flourished, they created richer soil that led to forest growth, said Schwaab.

Left unchecked, the intruders would transform Soldiers Delight into a forest, he said. The pines are like crab grass, which destroys healthy grass; shade from the trees prevented the native grasses and plants from reseeding.

Awareness of the area's international ecological, geological and historical importance led the DNR in 1995 to launch a restoration program, cutting down the scrub. Officials said the choice was between the non-native Virginia pine and the rare plants that inhabit Soldiers Delight.

Last spring, park manager Walter F. Brown was able to point to 100 acres where prairie grasses were growing for the first time in decades.

Several hundred more acres have been cleared by now, and "it looks radically different with the pine woods cut down. It's amazing," said Jack Wennerstrom, past president of the board of directors of Soldiers Delight Conservation Inc., a citizens support group, and author of a book on the area.

200 acres a year to burn

But cutting down the invading trees is labor-intensive and expensive. The State Forest and Park Service spent five years in research and experiments, including several small controlled burns, to determine how best to restore and manage Soldiers Delight.

Concluding that fire is the best method, DNR's forest service will burn off about 200 acres a year, Schwaab said.

DNR officials have held community meetings to explain the burn: Fires will be lighted only when the proper conditions of wind speed and direction, fuel moisture levels, relative humidity and cloud cover exist, said forest service officials, who expect to do the operation this week.

Officials stress that the forest service has done controlled burns on the Eastern Shore and in Southern Maryland, and that teams of rangers have fought wildfires in the western United States.

Jean Worthley, 72, of Finksburg, a naturalist and current president of the conservation association, said she favors the controlled burn.

Worthley, who grew up in the area and rode horses through Soldiers Delight in the 1930s, said she became convinced of the method's value after observing DNR's experiments and seeing aerial photos showing the extent of the encroachment.

"It is done all over the world," said Worthley, who said she recently returned from China, where she saw similar controlled burns.

Pub Date: 11/10/97

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