Stewardship in the lakeplain prairie & change of seasons

It’s not enough to visit a place once a year in order to know it – its fullness, its capacity for change. Recently, I spent a lot of time studying the nature of Algonac State Park. Located upstream of the Detroit River, just beyond Lake St. Clair, on the banks of the St. Clair River, Algonac SP has an amazing collection of remnant and restored lakeplain plant communities.

I became a member of the Stewardship Crew at Algonac State Park in September – just in time to catch the late summer flowers, just before fall dormancy – and transitioned out this April, after the great melting of spring. The crew functions to maintain and restore the lakeplain prairies and lakeplain oak openings. Throughout my time there, I came to add more and more angles and shades to my mental picture of prairies and savannas, and respected them ever more as places to protect.

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Blazing Star Prairie at Algonac State Park – August

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View of St. Clair River from park – late autumn

Lakeplain prairies and savannas mostly exist near the coasts of Lake Erie, Lake Huron and their connecting rivers. According to the folks at the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, a lakeplain prairie is a wet-mesic community of wildflowers, grasses and sedges growing in former beds laid by glacial lakes. A lakeplain oak opening is a wet type of savanna, meaning there are more mature trees, like Oaks and Hawthorn, and often occurs at slightly higher, drier ground. They are recognized as home for several endangered plant and animal species. As a whole, both communities are rare, as much of the historic coverage has been developed by humans, or the natural hydrology and fire rotation disturbed (thus promoting invasion by non-native plants or other native plant communities). They occur alongside wet-mesic flatwoods and Great Lakes marsh. [O’Connor, Kost and Cohen, 2009].

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Ernie’s Prairie – September

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Mesic Forest – September

Outpost Prairie/Savanna - October

Outpost Prairie/Savanna – October

The DNR Stewardship Unit works to restore these communities by promoting native flora (collecting and sowing local seeds) and by reducing competition from invasive species (applying herbicides, cutting or pulling). The crew also aims to mimic the effects of fire by mowing the prairie with a tractor, thus slowing the transition from prairie/savanna to mesic forest, and to reintroduce fire through controlled burns.

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Robert’s Road Prairie at sunset – Autumn

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Brush pile – Late Autumn

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Robert’s Road Prairie at sunrise – Late Autumn

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Robert’s Road Prairie – January

In the late summer and through the fall, we applied herbicide to phragmites, mowed, and collected seeds from milkweeds, coneflower, cordgrass, big bluestem, ironweed, and mountain-mint, to name a few. As the colder weather came in, we cut dead ash trees, treated buckthorn stumps, and removed brush from the firelines that are critical to prescribed burns. When there was snow on the ground, we burned brush. In spring, we devoted more time to maintaining the firelines in preparation for the burn season.

Sullivant's Milkweed - Autumn

Sullivant’s Milkweed – Autumn

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Brush pile burning (Lake Hudson Rec Area) – February

While performing these tasks, I observed small seasonal changes: the freezes and thaws, the flooding and draining, the movement of clouds, the passing of weather, the sounds of insects, the falling of leaves, the presence of fungi, the tracks in the snow, the flight of birds, the calls of frogs. The place even appeared so different from day to day depending on the cloud cover, the clarity of the air, and whether the ground was covered in grasses or snow. Even the moisture levels in the soil changed slightly day to day, and sometimes dramatically inch to inch. Spring in particular revealed the great wetness of the park, drawing attention to its different soil types, erosion and the movement of water. I’m curious how the park will continue to unfold, bloom and develop during the upcoming seasons.

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Great Lakes Marsh/Wet Meadow – April

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Outpost Prairie/Savanna – April

Citation:

O’Connor, Ryan P., Michael A. Kost, and Joshua G. Cohen. Prairies and Savannas in Michigan: Rediscovering Our Natural Heritage. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 2009. Print.

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