The Ottumwa Courier

June 27, 2013

Oh, the magic of the wild in Wapello County

By KURT BAKER
Special to the Courier

---- — EDDYVILLE — Want to do something? Exploring the natural world can be as emotionally and physically stimulating as any other activity available to us. I was reminded of this once again this week.

I had been wanting to look at the impact an early spring burn had on a restored prairie on the Eddyville Dunes. Spring 2013 was cold and wet. This seriously hampered the amount of controlled burning we could do. This is critical because fire is the best management tool to enhance native grasslands and control unwanted tree and shrub invasion into these grasslands. One missed year due to poor weather conditions translates into a lot of catch-up work in the following years.

In early spring, there was a window consisting of about three days that presented ideal burning conditions. This is when the Eddyville site was burned. Last week, a co-worker had been to the Dunes completing some trail maintenance work and later indicated that the burned area was aglow in purple. I figured it was some pale purple coneflower since scattered plants in some of our other prairie and savanna restorations were now in full bloom.

The anxiety walking from the truck to the burn site was killing me, and when I crested the hill, the site of thousands of pale purple coneflowers waving in the breeze was incredible! The early spring burn had triggered a tremendous flowering response that was indeed a site to be hold. Spiderwort, butterfly milkweed, vervain, ox-eye sunflower and others were in peak bloom, just past peak or just about to peak. Other species like prairie blazing star, leadplant and wild senna are poised to bloom in the near future.

When you spend time in a prairie, you begin to see things that are not typical, at least in today’s world. Prairies are much more than a group of interesting plants. During my morning field check photographing wildflowers and their response to management, the place literally came alive with the movement and sound of insects pollinating the blooming plants. Likewise, area birds became adjusted to my presence and commenced with their daily ritual of nesting, raising young and those singing males still trying to attract mates. You soon realize that these wild places are magical and that life is much more diverse and abundant as compared to today’s grasslands that are dominated by non-native species of very low diversity. A new theatre opens up nearly every minute in these wild places for those willing to take the time to look, learn and appreciate.

To restoration biologists, these areas are surreal in that we know man can never duplicate the dynamic interactions that occur in original, undisturbed, functioning ecosystems. Iowa’s high-quality natural areas today represent mere specks on the map. These native habitats that served to make the state what it is today … extremely productive soils that now feed the world are gone. Let's not forget that these same productive soils were formed by these original plant communities that at one time were home to the most diverse, productive prairies, wetlands and savannas on the planet. Today, natural areas are relegated to marginal areas at best … areas that were not suited to the plow, leaving the best land reserved for food production. However, our few remaining natural areas give us an ever-so-slight glimpse of the diversity Iowa once had. As a society and outdoors person, we are relegated to this diminished reality. Even at that, it is clear that our wild places hold a very special place on the landscape and that we need to do everything possible to save and manage their integrity and diversity to the best of our ability for the sake of our natural world and those who wish to be enlightened by this environment.

If you do not already have them, make the investment — buy a good pair of binoculars and plant, insect and bird identification guides, then venture out into the wild. If you are paying attention, you will be amazed!

— Kurt Baker is the Wapello County Conservation Board director.