Posted on: May 8, 2023 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

Photo by Aidan McGuire

By Aidan McGuire, News Editor

A smell of smoke wafted through the air on campus earlier this semester. Students gathered at classroom windows, and in the parking lot, as they witnessed what appeared to be the campus of Moraine Valley burning to the ground.

In reality, this was just one of the bi-yearly prescribed burns that Moraine organizes in the nature study area’s tall grass prairie in an attempt to fight off invasive species and bring life back to an endangered environment.

“Pre-settlement, Illinois was 60 percent prairie,” said environmental science professor Jana Svec, who serves as director of the nature study area. “There’s only .01 percent left in Illinois.” 

Over the 56-year life of the college, Moraine has paid special attention to nature preservation across campus from the beginning.

Svec explained that in the ’70s, Professor Dick Finley went to the college and asked it to set 40 acres of land aside to reconstruct a tallgrass prairie.

“They saw this opportunity to take this abandoned farmland and turn it into what Illinois once was,” Svec said.

The nature study area on campus serves many uses. Science professors like Svec use it to conduct labs and lessons with their students, and the prairie also plays a role in the preservation of tallgrass landscapes in Illinois.

“At least half of our labs we go out into the prairie to do work and research,” Svec said. “We go out and study and identify plants. There’s a pond there that we use for water chemistry. It’s basically another laboratory for us. It’s our outdoor laboratory that we use.”

They saw this opportunity to take this abandoned farmland and turn it into what Illinois once was.”

Director of Nature Study Area Jana Svec

Information literacy librarian and Go, Green! club advisor Tish Hayes stresses the importance of using this environment in the classroom.

“Students don’t have to just read about biodiversity or invasive species in a textbook,” Hayes said. “They literally get to walk outside their classroom and observe it.

“We can also see the evidence of climate change, which makes a sometimes abstract issue a reality.”

The Go Green! Club, under Haye’s guidance, has been a part of many restoration events both on and off campus.

“We asked Karen Borgstrom, a biology/environmental science professor at MVCC, to facilitate a prairie clean up,” Hayes said. “She gave us background on how the MVCC Prairie was created and maintained over the years and talked us through the indigenous plants, and we worked one day to remove invasive species.”

In an effort to maintain this landscape, prescribed burns are conducted to bring life back into the prairie. Many people are unaware of the purpose of these burnings.

“Right now the air is trapping things, so it’s a really bad set of days to do controlled burns,” said Kelly Maynard, an adjunct anthropology professor, after seeing the smoke billowing out of the prairie in early April.

Photo by Aidan McGuire
A prescribed burn engulfs Moraine’s campus, helping destroy invasive species and promoting growth.

Svec explained that the prairie is burned in pieces. And that back in the early days, students would actually help conduct these burns.

“That was before there were liability issues,” Svec said.

Today, the campus uses a company called NES Ecological Services to conduct the burns.

“We’ve been working with them for over 15 years now and they really do a great job,” Svec said.

Sevc explained that fire was frequent in the Midwest from lightning strikes, making tallgrass prairie resilient to it. 

“The grass roots are about 12 feet deep, so it may look like you just destroyed a landscape, but since their root system is so deep it does no damage,” she said. “In fact, it encourages them to grow.”

Sevc said a large part of her job involves finding the right time to organize these burnings.

“Wind direction is important,” she said. “We burned our prairie about a month ago and we try to do it when the winds aren’t burning toward campus.

“You might have experienced when the forest preserves did their burns and all that smoke blew into campus.”

In a way, Moraine is helping to preserve a key feature of Illinois from the distant past.

Prairies are “such a fragile ecosystem, one that we have lost almost completely, so to have these small pockets–our prairie’s 40 acres, not huge– but it’s a seed source,” Svec said. “There are almost no prairies left in Illinois and that’s what our landscape used to be for thousands and thousands of years. It’s like preserving the redwoods in California.”