Prescribed burns protect habitats

By: Linda Shepard | Rochester Post | Published April 7, 2015


OAKLAND TOWNSHIP — The tall perennial grass phragmites chokes out native plants, obscures scenic views, becomes a fire hazard and is difficult to eliminate.

Township officials are attempting to control invasive phragmites with prescribed burns this spring, after chemical eradication treatments last fall. Gallagher Creek Park on Silverbell near Adams and O’Connor Nature Park at Rochester and Mead roads received prescribed burns March 20.

“The main objective was to get rid of the phragmites,” said Oakland Township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide. “They are at a point where they are very visible. We treated all the phragmites in our parks last fall.”

Last September, the Oakland Township Board of Trustees allocated $5,000 for professional phragmites eradication in the township in a pilot program. With nearly 80 percent of the phragmites plant beneath the soil, the tall plumed grass spreads rapidly by underground stems and is difficult to eliminate.

The most effective approach is to treat the plant in the fall and burn or mow it down in the spring.

“Cutting or burning it alone won’t get rid of it,” said Mindy Milos-Dale, Oakland Township director of parks and recreation. “It spreads very readily.”

VanderWeide said prescribed burns are planned for some time in April in the township’s Elsey Park, Bear Creek Park and Watershed Ridge Park. “Depending on the weather,” he said. “We need good conditions.”

Nearby residents and businesses are notified by postcards or phone calls before the day of the prescribed burn.

On the day of the burn, the prescribed fire team contacts the local fire and police departments before carrying out the burn plan.

By controlling phragmites, township officials aim to restore native wetland plant communities and protect wildlife habitats. Throughout history, fires burned through wetlands regularly, so native plants have a history with fire.

Butterflies, bees, birds and other wildlife have co-existed with native plants for thousands of years and rely on them for food and shelter, said township officials.

Native wetland plants also slow down stormwater, removing pollution, and slowly release the cleaned water to streams including Paint Creek, Stony Creek and the Clinton River.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, invasive European strains of phragmites australis, known as common reed, were originally introduced to America in the 1800s, possibly through ship ballasts. 

Prescribed burns will also rid parks of other invasive species, including buckthorn and garlic mustard. “If you cut buckthorn, you have all these little seedlings, and then have hundreds of plants where you cut down one,” Milos-Dale said. “It almost makes a worse problem.”

“We are ramping up to pull garlic mustard,” VanderWeide said. “We’ll do manual pulling and also other [treatments] with herbicides when appropriate. We want to keep our natural areas healthy — by being preventative and by staying on top of things.”