Snowball’s chance in ‘Hill’: Burn preserves natural prairie land

rpulley@lsjournal.comFebruary 9, 2017 

This fire creates even as it destroys.

A controlled burn set intentionally to get rid of unwanted plants and tree seedlings at Snowball Hill prairie southwest of Harrisonville left a black patch that will rebound with fresh green grasses and flowers in the spring.

The Missouri Prairie Foundation owns about 74 acres at 19866 E 275th St., most of it cropland, but 22 acres know as Snowball Hill is native tall-grass prairie, untouched by the plow since pre-settlement days.

Doris Sherrick, foundation president, said the site is notable because it has rarely seen, endangered plants. These include prairie violets, federally protected Mead’s milkweed and prairie bunch-flower.

Plants like the prairie bunch-flower are protected “because they don’t grow in just any old place,” Sherrick said. “It’s never been plowed. There are only small pockets like it left.”

The bunch-flower, a white flower that blooms in dense clusters, may have been where the hill got its “Snowball” name, she said.

The foundation hopes the area will be an educational resource for schools and families in the area.

The Jan. 30 burn helped keep it clear of non-prairie plants and trees.

In the past, Native Americans set fires to promote new growth and draw grazing animals to the areas, or lightning strikes started blazes. Such burns kept trees from encroaching on the prairies.

With so much land developed or being used for agriculture, most of the prairie is gone and fires don’t happen, so purposefully set fires are a management tool, said Larry Rizzo, a biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation who volunteered to help with the burn. Conservationist also use herbicides to control invasive plants when necessary.

Rizzo said he had personal interest in the land, watching for it to come on the market for the department. But when it was decided to auction the land, the conservation department was forbidden to bid.

The Missouri Prairie Foundation stepped in.

“We paid dearly for it,” Sherrick said. The Land Trust helped provide funding to buy the land in 2014, she said.

The prairie is open to the public, she said, and the foundation is close to covering its $473,700 cost and wants to raise additional funds for a parking lot, gate and signage.

The actual prairie is on a hillock. The land was probably left unplowed because of its steep and rocky terrain. The foundation intends to eventually use seed from the prairie to replant the rest of its land at the site, Sherrick said.

Ideally, only about a third of a prairie that is being managed is burned, so that insects living in plant stems in untouched areas can re-colonize the burned area, Sherrick said.

The procedure is simple.

Wait for the right weather: not too much wind, not too much humidity. Light a fire and let it burn into the headwind, which slows its progress, until a wide fire break is formed, then light another fire on the other side. Let the field burn until flames meet in the middle.

Workers, in this case volunteers from the foundation membership, patrol the perimeter with water tanks, rakes and flappers — flat rubber sheets on a handle — to smother any sparks that escape the field and keep the blaze contained.

Sherrick said there was once 15 million acres of native prairie in Missouri, but only 70,000 acres remain untouched.

She said native grasses in the prairie are actually more nutritious for livestock, but settlers brought and planted grasses they were familiar with from “the old country.” Prairie plants’ deep root systems are what made Midwest soils so fertile, she said.

Rizzo said Snowball Hill has one of the most diverse prairie habitats because of its topography, and its one of few such examples in the Kansas City area. Species that like dry soils thrive at its top, while others live farther down the slope.

Rizzo said the big picture is sad. When farm commodity prices recently were high, many farmers were plowing under native grasses to plant crops. He said that replanted prairies never have the diversity of the original.

Remnants continue to thrive because people cared to save them.

“It might be Grandma just liked the flowers down there,” Rizzo said. “She wouldn’t let it be plowed out.”

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