Torching trees, creating grasslands

State workers use fire to restore an ecosystem at Soldiers Delight

November 10, 1999|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

The last time a large area of Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area was set on fire was in 1730, when the Susquehannock Indians burned it to flush white-tail deer from the woods. The charred woods gave rise to grasslands, but with the decline of the area's American Indian population, the ecosystem died.

Yesterday, in an effort to restore the lost grasslands environmental system and the endangered plants it produces, state Department of Natural Resources officials began burning 100 acres in the western Baltimore County park.

The two-day burn -- the park's largest controlled fire -- will end today. About 35 acres were burned yesterday and 65 more will be burned today, at a cost of $25,000. The fires are part of a project officials say eventually will include the burning of 1,000 of the park's 2,000 acres of forest.

Park and fire personnel began lighting the woods and pine stumps with hand-held gas torches at 11 a.m., sending rabbits and foxes scurrying to safety. Firetrucks sprayed water on the areas that were spared. Heavy smoke quickly dissipated, and within minutes, officials hoped, a new grassland ecosystem would begin the process of coming to life.

"What makes this so special is that we are standing where the Susquehannock did their burning," said Wayne Tyndall, a state restoration ecologist who has been working on the project since its inception in 1988.

The goal is a sensitive environmental area known as a serpentine grassland, which produces dry soil deadly for most plants. But it also produces the sandplain Gerardia, a rare wildflower with 4- to 8-inch stems and purple flowers that bloom only for a day.

About 95 percent of the nation's sandplain Geradia is in Maryland, said John Surrick, spokesman for the DNR. The rest is in Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as an endangered plant in 1988.

"It's part of an unusual ecosystem that is still in its natural state," said Andy Moser, an endangered species biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service. He called the burning project a key part of removing the sandplain Gerardia from the endangered species list.

The number of sandplain Gerardia began to dwindle immediately after the Susquehannock Indian nation was wiped out in the early 18th century after an outbreak of smallpox.

Without annual fires, dry soil was replaced by wetlands, and the area's oak trees began sharing space with Virginia pines. "The Virginia pine are blocking out the light we need and the pine needles are blocking the soil," said Jennifer Cline, a park naturalist.

Maryland historian William B. Marye discovered the problem in 1938, but research did not begin until 1988.

"Since 1730, this particular ecosystem type has slowly been disappearing," Tyndall said. "We didn't realize what was going on until we started the research project."

In November 1997, officials burned 45 acres and said the plant returned by the next spring. That year, they also began to cut down the thousands of Virginia pine trees to prepare for yesterday's fire.

A 10-foot-wide burn strip surrounds the 30 patches of burn area to keep the fire contained. Park personnel were to stay overnight to ensure that all fires are out. They will begin burning again today, weather permitting.

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