Fiery Renewal: Environmental class assists in annual burning of Peet Prairie Classroom to promote native plants

By Staff Writers MacKenzie Michael and Alayna Yates

Jan Mord and his students involved in an environmental science and prairie ecology Tiger Time enrichment excitedly walked out to the Peet Junior High prairie classroom on Tuesday, April 25 for the burning of a prairie grounds.

“The prairie’s plants should grow back healthier than ever as they won’t have to compete with any weeds and trees that were trying to take over. The ash left behind will make for good fertilizer as well,” Mord said.

Mord said that the prairie plants are very unique and will accommodate lots of insects and animals. “Prairie plants have deep root systems that help them survive fires and droughts where other plants can’t. Some prairie root systems can extend 12 feet below earth’s surface. After the prairie plants grow back, dozens of different insects will move in to take advantage of the smorgasbord of food and shelter that awaits. Birds and other small mammals will follow.”

According to Mord, this outdoor prairie classroom was established by Sue Smith, a former Peet Junior High science teacher. Then a couple of years ago Parker Strauss, a former Peet Junior High student, rejuvenated the prairie as part of his Eagle Scout project. A year after that Andrew Mord for his Eagle Scout project added the educational kiosk to inform the public on the importance of prairie ecosystems.

“With the help of those three people, it is nice to have a habitat that is easily assessable that could be studied and utilized by students,” he said.

In his enrichment, Mord and his students watched videos on all the life forms the prairies host, removed any trash from the prairie, cut back the prairie biomass near any structures and signs and added new information to the kiosk in front of the prairie.

“With the help of Daryl Smith (a Tallgrass Prairie Expert) and Cedar Falls Fire Department we carry out a prescribed prairie burn,” Mord said.

Before starting the burn, Smith informed students of the necessary procedures for starting the fire. First, he made note of the wind. At the time the wind was blowing from the southeast, so he said that when doing this, one should have the fire burning into the wind so the prairie burns slower and creates a “nice black area” before moving farther into the prairie.

Smoke and fire soon took over the prairie. The orange flames grew bigger and mightier and more beautiful than ever while taking over ferociously with a crackling sound.

The students who signed up for Mord’s enrichment gained a lot of knowledge about prairies and how they worked in our ecosystem. Ella Rekow, a ninth grader at Peet Junior High who signed up for the enrichment, said, “I signed up for the enrichment because I thought it would be very interesting to see why we would go out and burn the prairie. One thing I learned that really stuck out to me was that 75 percent of the prairie is actually underground with all the roots and stuff. I didn’t really have much previous knowledge on prairies. I knew you burned prairies to recycle the nutrients, but I didn’t really get the process. In the enrichment, we talked a lot about why we burned prairies and how important prairies are. We’ve spent time cleaning up the prairie, so there was a lot less garbage in there and cut down some things in the prairie to prevent other things from catching on fire.”

Many other students joined the enrichment, curious to learn more about prairies and why they burn them. Drew Tyler, who is also a ninth grade student from Peet, said, “I signed up for the enrichment because I figured it would be cool to learn more about prairies and the history of the Midwest’s prairies. The most interesting thing I learned from this was that 99 percent of Iowa was covered by prairies, but now only 1 percent of Iowa’s land is prairie. Other than that, I didn’t really have any background knowledge about prairies, and that’s kind of why I signed up because I wanted to gain more knowledge about prairies. The thing I was most excited about, though, when I signed up for the enrichment was when we got to burn the prairie, then watch it slowly grow back, which I think will be pretty cool. This enrichment has changed my perspective on prairies and how they need to be preserved because it’s very important for wildlife and that more of Iowa should be covered in prairies.”

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