On the Trail: For the forest, fire can be a healing medicine

Right now, if you drive through Giant City State Park near the Stonefort Trailhead, you'll notice that there has been a fire - a 200-acre fire to be exact. But far from being an accident, that fire was "prescribed" like a healing medicine for the forest and carried out by a trained fire crew.

In many types of forests, fire has been a common event for millennia. And in Illinois, our prairies and oak forests have been burning at intervals since glaciers left the state.

As a consequence, the plants and animals in our prairies and forests are not only adapted to fire, but actually dependent on fire to maintain their populations.

When fire is removed from these fire-dependent landscapes, like it has been in southern Illinois for almost 100 years, these habitats begin to degrade. And that's been happening to oak-dominated forests in southern Illinois, like the forest at Giant City State Park.

In the absence of fire, young oak trees are not regenerating, and many other forest plants are disappearing as several invasive plant species and shade-tolerant native tree species are taking over the understory of the forest.

This can be an invisible problem to untrained eyes, but not to the animals that depend on a healthy oak forest to "make a living."

By reintroducing fire to our forests, in a controlled way, the decline of our oak ecosystems can be reversed, and Illinois Department of Natural Resources staff have recently started doing that at Giant City.

Needless to say, starting and controlling a 200-acre forest fire is a complex job that involves a lot of planning, just the right kind of weather, and lots of hands-on-deck on the day of the burn.

I was able to participate in the recent Giant City burn, most usefully as a photographer, and the unanimous conclusion of the fire crew was that the burn had been very successful.

A successful prescribed fire stays controlled, of course, but is also burns in a way that preps the forest understory for the regrowth of native, fire-adapted species. And the ecological response to a prescribed fire in an oak forest can be amazing.

The Stonefort area was first burned in 2016. Right after that burn, park staff recorded an increase in the population of buffalo clover, an Illinois threatened species. Research has shown that other native flowering plants benefit from prescribed fire, too!

Of course, where there are flowers, there will be butterflies and other pollinators. And where there are butterflies, and especially caterpillars, there will be more birds. And so on, up the food chain.

While the immediate aftermath of a forest fire can look pretty devastating, it's important to understand that far from being a bad thing, fires in oak forests are literally necessary to maintain a healthy forest.

And when you drive back through the park in the spring, or hike the Stonefort trail, keep your eyes open for that buffalo clover, and those butterflies and those birds.

Mike Baltz has a PhD in biology from the University of Missouri and writes about changing the world from his home in Carbondale.