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Prairie fire

by Tom Uhlenbrock
Missouri State Parks

The roadsides hinted at what the rolling landscape of northern Missouri looked like in autumn when the first pioneer wagons arrived in the early 1800s.

Goldenrod and yellow sunflowers, with an occasional touch of purple courtesy of the blazing stars and Joe Pye weed, provided patches of color amid the grasses. Beyond were fields of corn, soybeans and sorghum stretching into the horizon.

More than a third of Missouri, up to 13 million acres, once was prairie with grasses so tall that they were said to obscure a man on horseback. While the Ozarks of southern Missouri was rich in timber, the deep soil of northern Missouri was coveted by agriculture.

Today, the 4,000 acres of Prairie State Park near the Kansas border in southwest Missouri showcase the largest remaining tallgrass prairie in the state. Bison still roam on the grasslands that were left unplowed largely because of the rocky soil.

Northern Missouri, too, is home to state parks that preserve remnants of prairie. The cool weeks after a long, hot summer are a perfect time for a road trip to visit three of those parks – Long Branch, Thousand Hills and Crowder.

The parks actively manage old farm fields to return them to prairie, using periodic prescribed burns to weed out woody growth and exotic invasive species and to encourage the return of dormant grasses and wildflowers.

Lightning strikes and fires set by Native Americans, settlers and later residents, burned the land and kept the woodlands open and preventing cedars from overtaking the glades and prairies. Carefully managed burns mimic those early conditions.
The diverse landscape of open glades and prairies on the uplands, and woodlands on the hillsides and bottoms, means not only more plants, but more insects and animals.

To inspect one of those areas, I boarded a boat with Emily Burke, the naturalist at Thousand Hills State Park. We crossed Forest Lake to visit a peninsula that had been burned last April. Burke was making her first return since the burn, and was jubilant at what she found.

“Wow, none of this was here last year,” she said of the multi-colored bouquet of wildflowers along the shoreline. “It’s absolutely gorgeous.”
A crab spider and a viceroy
Long Branch State Park is near Macon, about an hour’s drive north of Columbia. The Army Corps of Engineers damned the Little Chariton River in 1979 to create Long Branch Lake, which has a reputation for excellent bass fishing.
Visitors arriving on the main road are greeted by a 250-acre expanse of native grasses waving over the gently rolling hills.

“According to old surveys, the area on both sides of the road is remnant prairie,” said Jered Wisdom, natural resource manager of the park. The park has restored the prairie by replanting native grasses and using managed burns. Part of the area has been designated a Missouri Natural Area because of its complex mosaic of prairie, savanna, woodland and forest.

The Little Chariton Prairie Trail loops for 1.5 miles through those grasslands, and a short, slow hike revealed the beauty of the prairie ecosystem. Appreciating a prairie is like enjoying a meal of appetizers, most of the goodies come in small doses that are discovered by close inspection.
A butterfly – which I first thought was a monarch but later identified as a viceroy –clung to a grass stalk. A cream-colored crab spider nestled on a purple bloom of tall thistle. The largest creature I spotted was an osprey that flew low overhead on its way to the lake.

We inspected another field that historically was prairie, but has not been managed by fire. The grasses and wildflowers were being crowded out by woody growth and sericea lespedeza, a non-native invader.

Long Branch State Park has a marina, and a sand beach near the campground. Camping and picnic sites that border the prairie and the lake looked inviting, but I had a reservation at the second park on my list.
Restoring savanna
Thousand Hills State Park, west of Kirksville, has a good restaurant and comfortable duplexes with views of Forest Lake. The last fishing boat was coming in as a full moon rose over the wooded ridge across the lake, reflecting on the water.

The next morning, turkey vultures and a lone bald eagle circled the lake as I boated across with Burke, the park naturalist. We were taking a short cut to the halfway point near the primitive camp on the 10.5-mile Thousand Hills Trail.

The trail is on a 500-acre peninsula that had been burned in the past, and was burned last April. The goal was to restore a savanna, which is an ecosystem of widely spaced oaks and hickories with grasses and wildflowers growing beneath in a park-like setting.

“A savanna is like you took a forest and a prairie and mashed it together,” Burke said as we hiked the trail.

In a clearing surrounded by woods, a purple patch of rough blazing star stood out amid the tall clumps of big bluestem. A black caterpillar with orange spikes dined on a foxglove plant. Burke identified it as a Question Mark, named for the silver mark on the underside of the hind wing of the butterfly.

“It looks like we managed to burn off most of the younger trees, which is what we wanted,” Burke said. “We plan to burn the 600-acre Gill Branch Peninsula next. If all goes well, we will have burned half the park.”
Mysterious messages
Arriving at Crowder State Park, near Trenton, late in the day, I headed to the north loop of the Thompson River Trail to await the moon’s rise.
The trail begins in 85 acres of restored prairie, and the tall grasses were silhouetted by the red moon low in the eastern sky. Two barred owls barked back and forth from the woods surrounding the fields.

The 1,912-acre park is named for Enoch Herbert Crowder, known as the father of the Selective Service System. The river that borders the park is named for Dr. William Preston Thompson, whose two-story red brick home sits, roofless, near the trail, awaiting restoration.

The park has 17 miles of trails, and Anna Persell, the natural resource manager, said it is popular with hikers, mountain bikers, equestrians and fisherman, who visit its 18-acre lake.

“The prairie has been burned several times,” Persell said. “The plan is to start burning it annually, and we hope to do some chemical treatments to kill the sericea lespedeza.”

The park features yellow lady-slipper orchids, ostrich ferns and a population of timber rattlesnakes. I headed out the next day to hike the 3.8 miles of the north loop, but found none of the three because it was late in the season.

I did find the ancient tombstones of the Thompson cemetery, the old mansion and a section of trail that followed the river through a lush bottomland forest. The only sound was the wind in the trees – plus killdeer, pileated woodpeckers, bluejays, a screeching red-tailed hawk and a deer bounding off into the woods.

Native Americans had lived on the land, and Persell told me about Leatherwood Hollow, which contains rock slabs incised with mysterious messages left by early settlers. But time and a swath of stinging nettle prevented me from detouring off the trail in search of the hollow.

That’s enough reason for a return trip and another story.