Fire – not Roundup – used to maintain prairie at Wintergarden Park

Ronald Gossard watches controlled burn in prairie at Wintergarden Park.

By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN

BG Independent News

As the flames grew and the heat from the fire hit her face, Cinda Stutzman smiled with satisfaction.

She knows the controlled burn of about 10 acres this morning at Wintergarden/St. John’s Nature Preserve is a part of the life cycle for the prairie area.

“I very much look forward to this. It’s like Christmas for me,” said Stutzman, natural resources specialist with Bowling Green Parks and Recreation Department. “I know what it’s going to do for the habitat.”

In the section first burned this morning, some native prickly pear cactus plants were exposed after being hidden before by long grasses.

“They’ll perk right back up,” and park visitors will be able to view their big flowers this year, Stutzman said.

“It’s a rejuvenating force,” she said. “We’re still trying to beat up on the sassafras that is trying to encroach, and the blackberries are kind of aggressive.”

Controlled burns are performed every year in different parts of the park, explained Chris Gajewicz, natural resources coordinator with the city. The burns can only be conducted in certain weather.

“Today is a perfect day,” Gajewicz said. There were clear skies, no gusty winds, and low humidity so the smoke would rise.

The goal is to burn the woody saplings and invasive species in the prairie. The native species there will return after the burn – and some actually benefit with the fire aiding their germination, Gajewicz said.

The burn was conducted by members of the Hancock County Pheasants Forever organization. Ronald Gossard said he has been doing controlled burns for about 20 years.

“It’s always stressful,” Gossard said, keeping a watchful eye on the flames as they moved across the prairie.

Fire has been used for centuries to maintain the land.

“The Indians did that for feeding the buffalo,” Gossard said. “We’re going back to the native way – not using Roundup.”

While the controlled burn leaves the earth barren and black, it doesn’t take long for life to return, Gajewicz said.

“It will look black and then in a couple days it will rain,” he said – at least that’s the weather forecast his knee was predicting. Then the native plant material in the soil will be rejuvenated.

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