An ecological treasure is rising from the ashes

Fire: A controlled burn helps a rare variety of grassland recover from decades of interference.

September 09, 2000|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Virginia pine and greenbrier grew wild and unchecked, smothering native grasses and choking rare wildflowers. Then, torched, the scrub gave way to a charred wasteland.

Now, not even a year later, a prairie: acres of Indian grass swaying in the breeze, drifts of rust and gold that seem more Great Plains than Owings Mills.

"Can't you just see the buffalo coming across the horizon?" says Laura Mitchell, an ecologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "This is a whole different spot."

Different, and ecologically healthier than at this time last year, say Mitchell and the other conservationists who gathered yesterday to assess the results of a "controlled burn" at Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area. Here, on a geological rarity in one of the fastest-growing areas of metropolitan Baltimore, fire has cleared the way for a delicate ecosystem's renewal -- and the resurgence of a plant that grows almost nowhere else.

"We forget the ecological role that fire played," says Bill Giese Jr., a Fish & Wildlife Services official who directed last year's controlled burn at Soldiers Delight. "Fire is definitely the triggering mechanism for a lot of species."

At Soldiers Delight, an 1,800-acre outcrop of serpentine bedrock off Interstate 795, 18th-century American Indians used fire to flush out white-tail deer when hunting. In doing so they were unwittingly helping to maintain the grassland. But as modern civilization began to encroach upon the area, any fire that happened to start was suppressed. The lessons of Smokey Bear were learned well -- perhaps too well.

A 1937 aerial photo of Soldiers Delight shows oak savanna and serpentine grassland, where prairie-like vegetation managed to grow on the dry, nutrient-poor soil.

But a 1985 shot shows how the pines took over.

It was around that time that Wayne Tyndall, an ecologist with the state Department of Natural Resources, began to study the feasibility of a controlled burn to restore the land to its natural state.

After a half-dozen small, experimental burns, officials set about 40 acres of Soldiers Delight ablaze in 1997. Then, in November, Giese and his crew, with support from the private, nonprofit Nature Conservancy, wielded drip torches for a three-day, 100-acre burn.

The results are in: a lush meadow of grasses and wildflowers, where the only signs of fire are scorched, knee-high pine stumps and some blackened limbs of oak trees.

"It's phenomenal, the way it's rebounded," says Tyndall. He looks across the expanse of Indian grass -- that's the tall species seen waving in the background when bison are filmed roaming across the plains -- and says, "They have just moved in and taken off."

Then, as he wades through a patch of blue-stem grass, he calls, "Ooh! Hey! Well, here you go."

He's spotted his gem: a tenacious wildflower with delicate pink petals. It's sandplain gerardia, and Soldiers Delight is home to no less than 95 percent of all such plants in the world.

In the year since the fire, Tyndall says, the sandplain gerardia population at Soldiers Delight has increased at least threefold. Although colonies of the plant have been found in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Long Island, the Soldiers Delight population is the one believed most likely to survive, Tyndall says.

And it's not the only rare plant at Soldiers Delight. Says Tyndall: "It's difficult to leave the trail without stepping on an endangered plant. It's just so rich in species."

Rare butterflies also have been seen in the area, which is popular for hiking and bird-watching, but is off-limits to bicycling and other activities that could damage the sensitive soil.

Roaming the site of his handiwork, Giese, the Fish & Wildlife Services fire control officer, considers the ecological value of fire. He's just back from eastern Washington, where he'd been helping control the wildfires that have been raging in the West.

Even though those fires burned hot, fueled by thick stands of trees, the forests will replenish themselves, he says.

Tyndall, the state ecologist, says another burn of about 100 acres is planned this fall, with others to come in the years ahead.

"The goal," he says, "is 1,000 acres."

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