More Behind the Scenery: Managing Tallgrass Prairie
Prairie, savanna, hardwoods and pines…Minnesota has them all. Fire has always had a natural role in keeping all these ecosystems healthy.
As settlers created homesteads and as towns and cities grew, people worked to protect their lives and property by putting out fires as quickly as possible. Extinguishing fire started to change the landscape.
Today's resource managers recognize the benefits of fire in ecosystem management. Well-managed burns are used selectively to mimic nature and produce specific results at many Minnesota State Parks.
Fire in the prairie
Fire eliminates the trees and shrubs that shade prairie plants and removes old vegetation to make room for new growth. Many plants race to bloom in the gaps left by prairie fires, making a burst of nectar for butterflies and other pollinators. Learn more about prairies.
Prairie plants produce the nectar that attracts Monarch butterflies.
Seeds from flowers and grasses on this remnant prairie, burned in the spring, feed animals like the meadow vole.
Fire in the savanna
Early settlers in southeastern Minnesota noted prairies with scattered stands of trees. These areas are what we call savannas. Without regular fire, savannas grow quickly into forests.
State parks are working hard to restore these very rare systems. Fire is playing a key role in this effort at St. Croix and Great River Bluffs state parks, as well as many others.
Fire is slowly backed down a bluffland slope to kill trees and shrubs and open up the forest into a savanna.
Woodpecker experts hope that as more savannas are restored to Minnesota, red-headed woodpeckers will also increase.
Fire in the aspen parkland
Northwestern Minnesota boasts a unique environment where prairie is interspersed with aspen thickets. Elk and sharp-tail grouse once flourished here. As people allowed fewer fires to burn, aspen overgrew the prairie openings and wildlife that lived in the aspen parkland declined. Today, prescribed fire helps reduce aspen, quickly improving habitat for these species.
Sharp-tail grouse return to the newly restored aspen parkland.
A prescribed burn in May (left), and then in July after the burn (right). Prairie flowers quickly take advantage of nutrients available in the soils and sunlight after aspen are removed through burning.
Fire in the pine forests
Fire was no stranger to the land that gave us Minnesota's towering pines. Rarely, intense fires crowned through the canopy of pine stands, killing all the trees and starting the life cycle of the forest anew. More commonly, cool fires crawled through the pine forests, burning somewhere in Minnesota most years.
Young red and white pine trees need space and sunlight to grow larger. After fire kills shrubs and hardwoods, these pine trees can reach for the sky! Some pines, like jack pine, need heat to open their seed cones so new forests grow.
Resource managers use fire breaks, such as roads, to manage the prescribed fires. A pine seedling starts growing in a recently burned site, even before the snow fully melts.
Fire in the hardwood forests
Minnesota's hardwood forests burned infrequently during pre-settlement times. Fire is one tool resource managers use to control invasive species like European buckthorn. Left uncontrolled, European buckthorn grows so thickly that the seedlings of native trees like maples, basswoods and oaks are crowded out of the forest. If that happens, hardwood forests in many of our state parks will soon be gone, replaced by stands of European buckthorn.
European buckthorn is a stubborn problem. First buckthorn was cut on this site; then prescribed fire removed buckthorn seedlings.