Putting grasslands in check

Fires: The conditions were right for the first time in four years for the DNR's controlled burn at Soldiers Delight.

November 25, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Clad in yellow flame-retardant gear, a handful of men walked through Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area yesterday, dribbling flame from metal cans and turning the grassland into what looked like black cotton candy.

Soldiers Delight is a 1,900-acre serpentine grassland, an unusual ecological system that supports dozens of rare or endangered plants and insects. But unless it is periodically cleared through controlled burning, other plant species - enemy No. 1 is the pine tree - slowly manage to encroach and change the character of the soil.

Yesterday, the humidity was low enough to allow the tall grasses to burn but high enough so they wouldn't burn out of control. The wind was strong enough to move the flames but not forceful enough to blow them over firebreaks. And it was the right time of year - scrub grasses would kindle but the endangered plants were still green or safe underground.

"If it's not right, you go home," said Bill Giese Jr., a fire control officer from Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore who was in charge of yesterday's burn. "That's just the way it is. You can't push the window - that's when you get in trouble."

About 30 fire experts, volunteers and others patrolled the 40 acres being cleared in the state park off Interstate 795 in fast-growing northwestern Baltimore County, methodically coaxing the fire across the scrub grass.

A half-dozen men ignited the fires with drip torches, metal cans that resemble oversized lunchbox thermoses. Others stood by with packs of water strapped to their backs so they could keep the flames from going off course. Still others monitored the wind, temperature and humidity.

Jennifer L. Cline, the park naturalist, said the fire was more intense in 1999, the last time conditions were right for the state Department of Natural Resources to conduct a controlled burn in the park. Many of the pine trees and brambles that had made their way onto the grassland burned then, making yesterday's fire a relatively easy maintenance effort.

"It was a little more spectacular the first time around, but we're not into spectacular," said Glenn Therres, associate director of the Wildlife and Heritage Service of the Department of Natural Resources. "We're into nice, smooth and easy ... and that's what we've got so far."

Soldiers Delight is the second-largest serpentine grassland in North America, Cline said. (The largest is in Newfoundland.) Grasslands like it once stretched from the mid-Atlantic to Newfoundland, but most have been lost to development.

The soil in serpentine grasslands has an unusually high magnesium content, which makes it a perfect home for several species of rare grasses, Therres said. Most other plants can't survive there on their own.

However, a few more conventional grasses do manage to thrive in the soil, notably little bluestem, big bluestem and Indian grass. When they die and decay, they create a layer of conventional soil, which allows other plants to move in.

The biggest problem in Soldiers Delight, Therres said, is that pine trees slowly creep in from the edges, dropping needles and speeding up the conversion of the soil.

Before man came to Maryland, large grazing animals kept the grasses in check. Later, when American Indians lived in the area, they periodically burned the soil to herd deer and maintain the habitat. After the arrival of Europeans, farmers grazed their cattle there.

Everything was fine until the 1930s. Al Freund, a volunteer from Owings Mills who helps maintain the park, said that when local farmers went bankrupt during the Depression, the cattle that had kept the system in balance for centuries were suddenly gone.

The state acquired the property in 1960. Since the late 1990s, it has planned to conduct burns in the area every year in the brief windows of opportunity in the spring and fall when desirable species are protected and the undesirables are flammable.

Yesterday was the first time in the past four years that conditions were right, and the fire crews pounced on the opportunity.

It's not exactly what most people would think of as endangered species conservation, Therres said, but it works.

"It's pretty amazing," Freund said. "You do a burn, and you wouldn't expect it, but the grasses just come back."

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