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McHenry County College Departments Collaborate To Restore On-Campus Prairie

[Monday, January 28, 2013]


MCC Fire Science students use brooms to extinguish the prairie fire on the College campus that was planned as part of overall prairie restoration efforts. Burning is the only way to decrease non-native plant life and allow prairie plants to grow. Burning the prairie was part of overall restoration to help the prairie grow and thrive.

McHenry County College Fire Science and Biology students are working with the McHenry County Conservation District to get hands-on training with collaborative prairie restoration efforts.

In the Fall 2012 semester, 27 fire science students and six instructors stepped out of their classroom in fire uniforms and walked onto an on-campus prairie, a one-acre parcel next to the College's baseball diamond, to practice putting out a wildfire as part of their certification requirements. They used hand tools and hose lines from brush trucks provided by Union and Fox River Grove Fire Departments. Area fire departments throughout the county support MCC's fire science program during the year.

The prairie burn was conducted in an effort to decrease invasive plant species and remove woody species that create shade. Instructors hope to revive the prairie with native tall prairie grasses and colorful flowers, which will be planted by MCC biology students in the spring. Some plants might be started as plugs this winter in the MCC greenhouse by MCC horticulture students.

MCC biology instructors Marla Garrison and Mark Kuhlman have scheduled brush clearing and seed planting for the spring with a $250 grant from the National Wildlife Federation to use for purchasing seeds. This grant also qualifies the College to receive between 50 to 500 plant plugs free of charge every six months. The College also is receiving support and guidance from Caron Wenzel of Blazing Star Nursery. MCC has invited other local nurseries to help as well.

This was the first time that MCC Fire Science and Biology departments have collaborated on a prairie restoration since 1997.

"We've had several opportunities to burn the prairie in the past, but each time brought inclement weather, Kuhlman said. "Last summer's drought and the collaboration between the biology and fire science department made this restoration effort possible."

"I'm very excited," Kuhlman continued, "the on-campus prairie is a valuable outdoor classroom that can involve many areas of the College. The outdoors is a good place to learn most any subject."

Kuhlman noted that prairie restoration is important because "the prairie is part of our American history, legacy and local environment. A tiny fragment of a prairie survives here," he said. 

According to Kuhlman, the land was acquired by the College in the 1970s by a farmer who likely grew corn. In the 1990s, Dick York, then horticulture instructor and department chair, was instrumental in starting a prairie restoration process. In 1994, the College received seed donations for native Illinois prairie grasses, including Big Bluestem and Indian grass, which were planted by hand by students and volunteers. Some of those plants are still growing today.

Kuhlman has taught at MCC for 17 years and regularly takes his students to identify and evaluate plants and animals in and around the site. In 1999, his students planted additional native prairie plants, many of which have reproduced. However, over the years, many brushy, woody plants have crept in, which are considered harmful to the prairie. Some of these include sumac, buckthorn and black locust, along with many herbaceous alien species such as Queen Anne's lace and Canada thistle.

"Often, the only way to get rid of such invasives is with a burn," Kuhlman said. "In addition, many prairie plants need heat for their seeds to germinate, and burning away the woody plants allows sunlight to reach the ground and to blacken and warm up the soil." Plus, the ash is loaded with nitrogen and phosphorus, which is a natural fertilizer, he noted.

Kuhlman said the on-campus prairie will be burned annually for three years to set back the invasive plants to give the native prairie plants a chance to get re-established. In the future, this prairie may be used as a nursery for the 9.7-acre grassland and wetland in Chemung that was recently donated to the College for educational and outdoor laboratory use.

Fire Science instructor Chris Williams said the collaboration between the biology and fire science departments is an ideal situation for students and a boost to the whole ecosystem as well.

Until now, fire science students have practiced putting out wild land fires at conservation sites throughout the county as part of their certification requirements. Now, they have the opportunity to practice on campus periodically, creating another outdoor learning space for students at the College.


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