Why was there smoke coming from the Environmental Study Area?

March 31, 2021

In late March, the Environmental Interpretive Center's staff organized a prescribed burn to keep the one-acre prairie in UM-Dearborn’s Environmental Study Area maintained and healthy.

David Borneman did the controlled burn outside of the EIC.

For thousands of years, indigenous peoples strategically burned areas of land to stimulate native grass growth, enrich the soil and clear built-up brush to help mitigate the occurrence of larger fires. These controlled fires helped maintain open prairies, beautiful in appearance and ecologically beneficial for wildlife.

The Environmental Interpretive Center’s Natural Areas Manager Rick Simek says people may associate prairies with the Great Plains states — but it’s important to know that prairies were once a staple of southeast Michigan too.


Butterfly milkweed in the prairie

“We want people to learn about the heritage of our land. We want to bring back native plant life and also teach others about what was once here. So having a prairie is a win-win,” he says. “You need to maintain it by doing a controlled burn every two or three years. These prairie plants like Little Bluestem grass are native to the area and are fire-adaptive, so when the top part burns, their deep root system sends up more vegetation.”

In late March, the EIC worked with the Environmental Health & Safety team to organize a prescribed burn to keep the one-acre prairie in UM-Dearborn’s Environmental Study Area maintained and healthy. Simek says prior to the fire, they first did a sweep to make sure all snakes, toads and other critters were safely removed and placed in the woods nearby. Then, when the team was sure that the wind was blowing just right, licensed specialists started a fire from the prairie’s perimeter. It burned until it reached the center, and then snuffed itself out.

Simek says the fire removes woody plants, clears dense brush and eliminates some invasive plants so these native ones can thrive. Those plants, in turn, attract pollinators and provide homes for wildlife.

A native solitary bee species on a Black-eyed Susan flower. Black-eyed Susan's are part of the Rose Garden Prairie

To educate others about prairies, the wildlife they attract, their heritage and how to maintain them, Simek says the EIC staff and volunteers seeded the area that was formerly Clara Ford’s rose garden with native prairie grasses and wildflowers in 2014. The effort was led by alumnus Robert Primeau, ‘05, who now works for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, & Energy. 

Simek says the area is a learning tool for students in elementary school through college. But he says you don’t have to be a student to appreciate it.

“It’s wonderful to have this small patch of habitat representing a rare ecosystem that’s a part of the indigenous Southeastern Michigan environment right here on campus and to be able to witness how nature interacts,” Simek says. “And if you aren’t fascinated by that, watching the wildflowers and grasses blow in the wind while a butterfly or two flutters by is a beautiful sight anyone can enjoy.”

The EIC Environmental Study Area is open daily from sunrise to sunset. When walking the trails, please follow Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s orders on social distancing, mask wearing and small groups. Simek would also like to remind nature-goers that fishing on site is prohibited and to leave bikes and dogs at home because they cause disruption and stress to the EIC wildlife.