An endangered ecosystem fights for survival in our own backyard
When the vast majority of a local ecosystem is eradicated, serious measures are in order. Case in point: the southern coastal tall-grass prairie. The small fraction of this habitat that still remains is hanging by a thread.
And surprisingly, it’s a plant species, not humans, doing most of the damage.Over 900 acres of this endangered ecosystem lie within the jurisdiction of the Armand Bayou Nature Center (ABNC). While agriculture and cattle over-grazing dealt the initial blow, the largest current threat is the Chinese Tallow Tree.
Not a Native
The Chinese Tallow isn’t indigenous to this region—yet they’re all around us. They initially arrived in the area as a result of the plant nursery trade. The Tallow offered an answer to an exploding local economy. It grew quickly, turned elegant colors in the fall, and would grow in pretty much any sort of soil. Buying and planting Chinese Tallow Trees seemed like a no-brainer.
However, no one ever imagined what would happen a few years down the road. “They became a problem when introduced into sensitive ecological areas where the [aforementioned] elements enable them to out-compete native plants,” Mark Kramer, Stewardship Coordinator for the ABNC, explained. “Since the Chinese Tallow grows like a weed, it quickly overtakes everything around it. Eventually the Tallows grow into a forest, creating a canopy that robs all native vegetation of much needed sunlight and nutrients.” In other words, ecological devastation.
A Burning Answer
Oddly enough, the answer to the problem is found in violence—violence against the Chinese Tallow. According to Mark, they manage the Tallow “through an integrated strategy which includes prescribed fire, brushhog mowing with a tractor, and herbicide treatments.”
Fire is not a new means of ecosystem management. In fact, it was used by early Native Americans and even by Mother Nature herself through lightning. The logic behind burning to save a habitat? Over long periods of time, native plants have developed a sort of heat resistance. They’ve adapted by moving budding cells below ground level, in turn keeping them safe from fires. So after a fire purges the ecosystem, the budding cells are allowed to reproduce native vegetation.
At this point, the Chinese Tallow and other invasive species have yet to make this adaptation. As a result, a carefully orchestrated fire can destroy entire Tallow populations, simultaneously rejuvenating native plant life. Of course, the fires can’t keep them away forever. For that reason, they also use mowing and herbicides.
It’s an ongoing battle with no end in sight. In fact, without ongoing management, a Tallow forest has the ability to completely reform in only 20 years. Knowing that, continual aggression is the only answer to the Tallow problem.
Using controlled fires to reach a goal in a particular ecosystem is known as “prescribed burning.” The ABNC carried out its initial prescribed burn back in 1978. From that point on, prescribed burns became the primary weapon in their prairie restoration arsenal. They’ve gone so far as to form multiple burn teams with the specific purpose of destroying the Tallow.
Join a Burn Team
You don’t have to be an employee of the ABNC to join a burn team. To get involved, take one of the prescribed burn classes offered by the ABNC. Here you’ll learn:
- all about uses of fire
- how fire behaves
- fire safety
- and everything else you’ll need to join a team
And if you’re really lucky, you can even participate in a small scale burn that very day. Sound like your idea of a good time? If so, call 281-474-2551 and register for a prescribed burn class.