Spring burns planned to rejuvenate Searls Park Prairie
Rockford Register Star
ROCKFORD — You may see smoke rise from Searls Park this week as the season for controlled burns begins.
Prescribed fires to manage natural areas are typically conducted between March and April. Weather conditions must be just right for such burns.
For the district, the burns are part of the restoration of a 26-acre buffer south of the Searls Park Prairie Nature Preserve. The Rockford Park District received about $86,000 from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to restore and expand the 66-acre black soil prairie. It’s the start of a three-year process.
Searls Park Prairie is a “very high-quality black soil, wetland prairie that has never been heavily disturbed,” said Nathan Hill, natural areas maintenance coordinator for the Park District. But its usable habitat is fragmented into separate pockets.
“The goal is to reduce the fragmentation and increase the continuous habitat to make it more attractive to grassland birds.”
The agency plans to clear brush and invasive species while planting native grasses and hardwoods, including oaks, Iowa crab and linden.
The district is perhaps better known for its soccer fields, softball diamonds and other active recreation opportunities, but it manages lots of natural area, too. About 1,500 of its 4,800 acres are natural areas, Hill said. That includes small corners near neighborhood parks to larger open spaces at Searls, Atwood Prairie and Aldeen.
The district added 20 acres of natural area last year, including prairie plantings at Midway Village and the creation of a 1.5-acre meadow at Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum.
“It’s hopefully going to be an educational opportunity for nearby school groups,” Hill said. “Rather than driving to Severson Dells or somewhere else, we’re creating an urban natural area.”
Searls Park Prairie is the Park District’s biggest restoration project this year. Prescribed burns also are planned for Midway Village and a small prairie near Aldeen Park.
The district also plans to continue its restoration of native buffer along the Rock River. Last year, the district removed invasive buckthorn along the river from Auburn Street to the Eclipse Lagoon and reseeded the area with native grasses and flowers to improve aesthetics and manage the geese population. The district hopes to continue that restoration from the lagoon to the YMCA.
The Park District has had a problem with geese along the path, board President Jack Armstrong said, even asking residents to volunteer their dogs to harass the fowl and shoo them away.
The district’s long-term goals for its natural areas are to create natural trail areas and educational signs to tell visitors about the type of plants they see.
“We hope that we’ll have more information signs to go along with those natural areas so that people realize what the area is and what they’re seeing,” Armstrong said. “Hopefully, with that they’ll be able to enjoy those areas as they really should be enjoyed.”
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