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Prescribed Fire In Natural Areas Promotes Biodiverse Landscapes

Leigh DeNoon

As Indiana approaches its bicentennial, conservation organizations across the state work to acquire and preserve natural areas that reflect more of what the Hoosier landscape would have looked like 200 years ago. One of those preserves in Jasper County recently was the site of what is known as a prescribed fire.

Fisher Oak Savanna Preserve is home to, among other things, rare orange-fringed orchids and legless lizards – lizards that look more like snakes. Fire is one of the tools to help sustain the biodiversity of certain natural areas. Gus Nyberg, executive director of NICHES Land Trust in Lafayette, says Native Americans used fire to manage their lands, and that lightning strikes are nature’s way of promoting biodiversity, too.  Nyberg says for this savanna, the prescribed fire he is leading will open up the tree canopy, allowing more sunlight to hit the ground helping the orange-fringed orchids to thrive.

Today, wildland firefighters are burning 50 acres of mostly oak savanna and some prairie. Nyberg says his crew includes volunteers and members of NICHES, dedicated to helping preserve endangered natural areas.

“Things have been pretty good in Indiana with the Healthy Rivers Initiative and buying and adding ground with the Nature Trust as well. But we’ve kind of reached an impasse or slowed down a lot public land acquisition. And not-for-profit land trusts really kind of filled that void – whether they’re national ones like The Nature Conservancy or regional ones like NICHES. But it gives a local group of people in the case of NICHES control to kind of create the destiny of their own landscape.”

Nyberg says studies have shown 200 acres is the minimum needed to maintain the diversity of native plants and wildflowers long-term.

“We’d like to see this property grow to a thousand acres at least, you know, something that’s large enough so that there’s a large enough pool of bull snakes out here. Legless lizards, garter snakes and possibly even the box turtles the Sizemore’s used to see on their property but haven’t seen for a few years. You know if we can critically pull that population back from the brink – that’s the goal.” Fisher Oak Savanna is just over 200 acres with another natural area a half mile to the north. Nyberg is in contact with the landowners in between in hopes they will decide to sell to their land to NICHES some day.

“We’re based on willing sellers only. So a lot of the work that we do is just being good neighbors – trying to position ourselves financially to be able to move on a property when it becomes available.”

At the end of the prescribed fire the ground is blackened – but Nyberg says it won’t stay that way long.

“If it stays in the days in the 40s and 50s and gets a little sun on the ground – you’ll see green in here in a week – but at the most – two weeks – it’ll start greening up.”

Fisher Oak Savanna is one of several of NICHES 37 properties where prescribed fire is being used this spring.

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