Controlled burn

Dubuque County Conservation conducts a controlled burn at New Melleray Abbey in rural Peosta, Iowa.

This fall, area conservation organizations burned thousands of acres of prairie, wetland and even woodlands after years of being rained out.

Historic rains and flooding in the tri-state region during spring and fall have become rampant in recent years. One perhaps-overlooked impact is that those months used to be prime periods for prescribed or controlled burns.

“One of the interesting trends we’ve had in Iowa, with climate change, is normally our prescribed burning was done in spring and fall,” said Kenny Slocum, naturalist and resource manager for Clayton County Conservation Department. “When we have all these fire-dependent ecosystems and a climate that is no longer providing the right conditions for that, we have to get creative.”

Prescribed fires are a great tool for conservation agencies, as they can clear woody invasive species from prairie and the understory of woodlands, culling saplings from what was historically oak savanna or oak woodland, and encouraging native species. Before European colonization, this area would burn regularly, which kept all of this overgrowth from occurring.

Those fires were not always naturally occurring, often being started and managed by peoples of the area. Following the arrival of Europeans and westward expansion, settlers practiced full suppression of those fires, putting them out as soon as possible.

“Unfortunately, fire’s been eliminated from our landscape for a long time,” said Brian Preston, executive director of the Dubuque County Conservation Board.

In recent years, though, this elemental management tool has seen a resurgence in the area.

From 2012 to 2018, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Maquoketa Wildlife Unit — a six-county region including Delaware, Dubuque, Jackson and Jones counties — burned an average of 333 acres under its supervision per year.

This year, the department burned 1,364 acres in the region, including 170 in Dubuque County, 140 in Jones County, 108 in Jackson County and seven in Delaware County.

Nathan Jones, executive director of the Jackson County Conservation Department, said his department burned 400 acres this year. That number is expected to grow, though, as he said its prescribed fire program is still “developing” since his arrival. Jones accepted the position in November 2019 after working with the Iowa DNR in the western part of the state.

“They have more of a fire culture in western Iowa as far as a management tool,” he said. “Everyone over here is catching up with new techniques, new equipment. But we got quite a bit of fire on the ground. We saw some great success controlling the undesirable vegetation and seeing our native plants just boom from that burn.”

Preston said his department burned more than 200 acres this year as well.

“We were able to get a lot done we’ve been wanting to,” he said. “And we have a lot of areas prepared, with fire breaks already mowed, for next spring, weather depending.”

Slocum said his department burned more than 70 acres in Clayton County as well. He was particularly excited to have included woodland habitat as part of that.

“We’ve been doing a lot more burning in the timber, which is great for oak woodland and those forest restoration goals,” he said. “That comes with its own set of challenges. The terrain is a lot trickier. You have to be worried about standing dead trees that can ignite and be a hazard. They need more wind to push those through the burn area.”

But, he said, the method is “unparalleled in efficiency” in reducing the undesirable vegetation.

“If you don’t have fire, your only options are mechanically and chemically, which is a lot more work,” Slocum said.

Across the river, the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation, working with partners in the Northwest Illinois Prairie Enthusiasts, had a productive fall burn season.

One highlight was finally being able to burn a blufftop at Portage Preserve, at the confluence of the Galena and Mississippi rivers, for the first time since its purchase nine years ago.

“That property has approximately 40 Native American burial mounds out there, some of them dating over 1,000 years old,” said Director of Land Conservation Jim Johannsen. “This is probably the first time that land has seen prescribed fire since the forced removal of the Native Americans in the 1800s.”

The City of Dubuque also has done a little prescribed burning this year, but Parks Division Director Steve Fehsal said staff has a lot more planned for next spring.

That, of course, will depend on the weather.