I am the Natural Areas Stewardship Manager for Oakland Township Parks and Recreation in southeast Michigan. I have a doctorate in biology (focused on plant ecology) and I am passionate about protecting and managing natural areas.
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It was snowy this morning when I looked out the window. Yes, it was beautiful, and no, snow is not unusual in early April. But I’m getting a strong case of spring fever, so I needed to look for something green to brighten my day.
Enter mosses. They are the masters of shaking off a snowy day. One study found that Arctic mosses can ramp up photosynthesis within 332 seconds of snow removal. That’s less than 6 minutes! Mosses in southeast Michigan are equally hardy. They love the bright sunlight and moisture of early spring, ramping up photosynthesis quickly to soak up every bit of sun.
With the constant change between beautiful, sunny days and wintry weather, we need to take a lesson from the playbook of mosses: catch every bit of sun possible. The forecast calls for sun this weekend, so where are my hiking boots…?
When we spend a lot of time in a space, the sound, shadows, and ambience almost become part of our subconscious. The creakkkk of a floorboard as we walk through the living room. The drip of coffee slowly filling the pot in the morning. The rustle of pine boughs in a favorite patch of forest. The harsh call and boastful flash of color from red-wing blackbirds in a marsh. Our happy memories in these places make them special to us.
What about the natural spaces that have (almost) ceased to exist in our everyday lives? The prairies and oak savannas of Oakland Township used to have a signature rustle in the evening breeze. Fields of brightly lit prairies were punctuated by speckled shade under oak groves, and seasonal bouquets of native wildflowers marked the transition from spring to summer to fall. Until a few decades ago, the inhabitants of our township had been intimately familiar with the sights and sounds that defined our open oak lands in southeast Michigan for thousands of years.
We now assume that all fields should eventually grow into shrub thickets, then forests. But many plants, birds, insects, and other wildlife are prairie and savanna specialists, with connections to each other that were formed by living together in this landscape. They depend on us re-awakening memories of these fantastic, forgotten fields, doing the important work of making them new.
So two weeks ago, with the help of our volunteer prescribed fire crew, that’s exactly what we set out to do. We assembled around noon at Bear Creek Nature Park. All the staff and volunteers that help on our burns have been trained to do prescribed fire, so they know the drill when they arrive. We double-checked our pre-burn list: introduce everyone on the burn crew and write names on helmets… check; call the fire department… check; walked trails around the burn unit… check; tested equipment… check; everyone is wearing the right gear… check; weather and fuels meet our burn prescription… check. After reviewing the plan for the day, we headed out to begin burning. The fine grasses were nice and dry, though small patches of snow lingered in the shade on a north-facing slope.
We started on the down-wind side, slowly letting the fire creep into the burn unit.
As we built up a safe, burned buffer on the outside of the unit, we lit parts of the interior. The mowed trails kept the fire exactly where we wanted it, though we checked them often during the burn just to be sure.
As we worked around the burn unit, we let the fire creep through patches of invasive autumn olive and multiflora rose. The slow-moving flames will do more damage to the shrubs than a fire that passes quickly.
After we got around the outside of the burn unit, we stepped back to let the fire crawling through the interior finish its work. Then we walked through the area one more time to put out anything that was still smoking.
Fire crawls through a patch of trees at Bear Creek Nature Park on March 23, 2018. Photo courtesy of Mike & Joan Kent.
After burning the available fuel, the fire slowly extinguishes itself. Photo courtesy of Mike & Joan Kent.
We had a nice mix of experienced staff, returning volunteers, and new volunteers. By the end of the burn, everyone got a chance to try the different pieces of equipment and responsibilities on the burn crew. And we had fun!
The fire likely top-killed the invasive shrubs in our burn unit. We’ll still need to treat any that sprout again in the summer, but fire did a lot of work for us in a few hours. The black soil will warm more quickly than areas that haven’t been burned, extending the growing season for the plants. In a few weeks we’ll see a fresh fuzz of green growth carpeting these areas. We will spread seed of more native grasses and wildflowers so that they can establish in the newly opened soil.
That March afternoon was a fine day for making new memories. Our memories of working together as a team to restore grassland habitat are an important part of natural areas stewardship. We only care for the things we value. The township residents that walk these fields will see the dramatic change, watch the landscape grow over the summer, and make their own memories. Hopefully most of the visitors will see the signs we posted, explaining why we use prescribed fire. A few will go home a look up more information. And maybe some will join our team next time we do a prescribed burn!
After three years of consistent stewardship work in key project areas, we are beginning to see good results. New wildflower species were found at the Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail. Invasive shrubs were cleared from over 20 acres at Watershed Ridge Park and Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Prairie species planted a few years ago at Draper Twin Lake Park and Charles Ilsley Park began to flower. And more people like you got involved in the adventure through bird walks, volunteer workdays, nest boxes, potlucks, and stewardship talks. What fun! Check out the highlights of the year below, or read the full 2017 Annual Stewardship Report (click link to view).
Volunteers contributed 637 hours in 2017! Weekly bird walks were well attended. For the first time we hosted a summer stewardship potluck to help build our conservation community. Volunteer workdays focused on garlic mustard (May), invasive shrub control (July to November), and seed collecting (October). Volunteers also helped with maintenance of native plant gardens, prescribed fire, vernal pool monitoring, and building nest boxes.
Volunteer Tom Korb led the effort to revitalize nest boxes in our parks. Tom built nearly 30 nest boxes for installation at Charles Ilsley Park and Draper Twin Lake Park. We hope to see more breeding bluebirds, kestrels, and other cavity-nesting birds in our parks in the future!
Prairie Restoration with USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Grants
Using our second Partners grant we prepared sites for planting 15 acres of native prairie plants at Charles Ilsley Park and 3 acres at Gallagher Creek Park. Planting was delayed until spring 2018 due to seed shortages, but that will give us a little more time to get the site in good shape. We continued maintenance of areas planted in 2015 and 2016, working to give native plants the upper hand during the critical establishment phase.
We contracted with Plantwise LLC for spring burns at Cranberry Lake Park, Lost Lake Nature Park, and Marsh View Park. We also worked with private landowners to burn habitat adjacent to the Paint Creek Trail right-of-way, including high quality oak savanna, prairie remnants, and fen wetland. We held volunteer prescribed burn crew training again in February. The volunteer crew completed burns at Marsh View Park, Paint Creek Heritage Area—Wet Prairie, and the Art Project prairie north of Gallagher Road along the Paint Creek Trail.
The stewardship blog continued to thrive with regular posts from Cam Mannino. The blog also continued to serve as an up-to-date source of information about stewardship volunteer opportunities and events. We published 52 posts and had 5324 visitors, with 8797 page views. Natural Areas Notebook, oaklandnaturalareas.com
Stewardship hosted education events in early 2017. Topics included the importance of protecting public land in Michigan, reptiles and amphibians of Michigan, and prescribed fire in Oakland Township parks.
Phragmites Outreach Program
We continued the Phragmites Outreach Program to help township residents get Phragmites treated on their property. We received about 33 requests for no-obligation cost estimates, and treated about 21 properties with a contractor, PLM Lake and Land Management.
We had one technician return for 2017, Zach Peklo. Zach came to us from Grand Valley State University studying natural resources management with an emphasis on Geographic Information Systems. New to our crew as seasonal land stewardship technicians in 2017 were Josh Auyer and Billy Gibala. Josh graduated from Calvin College in May 2017 with a degree in Biology. Billy graduated from University of Michigan – Flint in spring 2017 with a degree in wildlife biology and a minor in regional and urban planning. Alex Kriebel also returned to our crew as a Stewardship Specialist, bringing additional experience in natural areas management from his work with Oakland County Parks and Recreation.
All of our annual reports can be found on the About page.
If you are interested in joining our volunteer burn crew, join us for our training workshop on Saturday, February 24, 9 am – 2:30 pm at the Paint Creek Cider Mill (4480 Orion Road, Rochester, MI 48306). We will cover reasons for using prescribed fire, preparations for conducting a fire, necessary tools, roles of each burn crew member, and ignition patterns. Training is required for new crew members, and a great refresher if you’re returning. Weather permitting we will do a small demonstration or mock burn after lunch. Snacks will be provided, but please bring your own lunch.
Join us this Thursday night for our second 2018 Natural Areas Stewardship Talk! Matt Demmon from Plantwise, LLC will discuss “Water as a Resource in Your Landscape.” You won’t want to miss this chance to learn from an experienced professional about rain gardens, rain barrels, bioswales, detention basins, and more. Check out the full description below. This event is free and open to the public. Bring your friends and family!
Location: Paint Creek Cider Mill, 4480 Orion Road, Rochester, MI 48306