By Nicole Stevens, Chesapeake Conservation Corps Member
On Friday, February 26th, two controlled burns were held near ACLT’s Northside trailhead. Five trained professionals from the Forest Service ignited several acres of meadow to reduce thick layers of thatch buildup and to aid in ACLT’s efforts to control Chinese lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata), a common invasive plant. As safety precautions, the parking area and trails were closed for a few hours and Forest Service staff wore protective fire gear, brought two Kubota RTV’s equipped with several hundred gallons of water, and used special flamethrowers to control the spread of the fire. ACLT’s Land Manager, Autumn Phillips-Lewis, was the first person to light the burn!
Fire is a natural process that has shaped Maryland’s landscape for millions of years and has been a useful tool for modern-day humans as well as European settlers and indigenous people who have lived on the land for hundreds of thousands of years. Fire can also be GREAT for the ecosystem! While large, out-of-control wildfires can be devastating to both the environment and people alike, carefully-executed controlled burns help control dense underbrush, allow space for new growth, limit the intensity of unplanned fires, and increase soil fertility by rapidly returning nutrients to the soil. Some trees, including the Maryland natives Table Mountain pine and pitch pine, even require fire to reproduce. Many animal populations even benefit from regular burns!
The fires at ACLT were lit to restore this historic balance in the ecosystem, remove the thick layer of thatch (grass build-up on the ground), and help control the spread of invasive Chinese lespedeza. The fire was actually used to increase the germination of Chinese lespedeza seeds in the seed bank (the dormant seeds that have built up on the top layer of soil), which may seem counterintuitive to control efforts at first. However, this is just the first step of a multi-step control plan. Now that fire has been used to increase the germination rate of seeds that may have otherwise lay dormant in the soil for years, the new growth will be eliminated using herbicide and solarization (covering the area with large plastic sheets to superheat the soil and block the plants from receiving sunlight and oxygen) this summer. Using the fire to temporarily increase growth of this invasive will allow ACLT to reduce the size of the lespedeza seed bank and increase the number of lespedeza plants that will be killed by the herbicide application. This will reduce the number of applications that will be required to achieve the same level of lespedeza control and therefore reduce the overall amount of herbicide that will need to be applied. To put it simply, by increasing the germination of seeds in the seed bank using fire, ACLT will get more “bang for its buck” with an herbicide or solarization treatment this summer.
Come check out ACLT’s burn sites in the North Side Meadow from the Griffin Meadow Trail: a smaller patch behind the barn and the whole northern-most back field (a section that is currently closed to the public to limit the spread of invasive wavyleaf basketgrass, but you can look from the sign!).
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