Preserving by destroying 40-acre controlled fire at Balto. Co. park aims to protect rare species

November 21, 1997|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

The dry, brown grass burst into crackling flames as crew chiefs dripped a blazing mixture of diesel oil and gasoline from torches that looked like small watering cans, igniting a controlled burn at Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area near Owings Mills.

Smoke billowed into surrounding trees as light winds pushed the fire slowly up the slope, charring the dead grass into black ash. Around the perimeter, more than 50 men and women in fire-resistant clothing used brooms, shovels and backpack water pumps to hold the flames within the designated area.

By spring, the burned area will be revived oak savanna, bursting with new growth of native prairie grasses, said Wayne Tyndall of the state Department of Natural Resources. The Virginia pines, junipers and thorny greenbrier that have overwhelmed the grasses and oaks in the past 50 years should be in retreat.

Yesterday's burn involved 40 acres on which the pines had been cut down. It was part of a long-term plan to eliminate the invasive plant life and restore 1,000 acres of Soldiers Delight to their pre-Colonial state.

Soldiers Delight -- home to more than 30 rare and endangered plant, animal and insect species -- is the largest serpentine grassland and oak savanna ecosystem in the eastern United States. The grasslands once embraced tens of thousands of acres across northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania.

Choking rare plants

Serpentine rock, the area's major geologic feature, is magnesium silicate, which creates soil as it weathers. However, because the soil is toxic to many plants, only certain species, such as the grasses and oaks, have found a home there, said Laura Mitchell of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has contributed funding to the restoration project.

But many of the rare local plants are being choked by the invasive species.

The pines are like crab grass, which destroys healthy grass; shade from the trees prevents the native grasses and plants from reseeding. The brown, dead leaves of oak trees among the pines in the wooded areas around the burn show how the pines dominate.

Controlled burning -- used for centuries by Native American hunters -- is a proven technique for conservation and restoration, officials say.

The only problem yesterday was that the summer's extreme drought inhibited the growth of grass, creating a fuel shortage for the burn, said Forest Ranger Bill Skinner, head of field operations.

Fire was kept at a distance from oak trees that have been growing freely since the surrounding pines were removed.

"We had to keep it cool for the oaks. We don't want to damage them," Skinner said.

Once the burn is complete, Skinner said, crews will set spot fires to clear areas the flames missed in the original sweep.

Photographs of Soldiers Delight taken between 1933 and 1988 illustrate how dominant the pines became in 50 years. Tyndall said that if the restoration project was not undertaken, the entire area eventually would become a pine forest.

'Endangered'

Kevin Coyne, 23, of Sykesville, a member of the Maryland Conservation Corps, carried a 10-gallon bladder pack on his back to spray on errant flames.

"This is really a good thing," he said. "We're finally starting to pick it up. I've been through every part of Soldiers Delight, and this is an endangered part of the world."

Park Manager Walter F. Brown said he was pleased with the progress of the burn, which comes after several hundred acres of pines were hand-cleared. Prairie grasses have returned to those sections for the first time in decades, and by next year the growth is expected to be lush.

The DNR has won support for the restoration project with its community meetings to explain the situation.

"I've watched how the pines have smothered out the other plants," said Alma Coufal of the 5200 block of Wards Chapel Road, near the burn site.

Sandy Engles of the 5100 block of Deer Park Road, across from the park entrance, said people in the area "don't care about the burn. We have to live here, and I really care about the area."

Pub Date: 11/21/97

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