Campus Highlights

Exploring OU’s Living Classroom

Prescribed burn ignites new life in OU’s wildlife preserves

A man standing in a river


icon of a calendarApril 25, 2022

icon of a pencilBy Emily Morris, Video by Jon-Paul Bakaric and Sarah Griffith

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Spanning over 110 acres, two biology preserves serve as “living” classrooms that guide Oakland University students. The eastern and western wetland preserves are a unique reservoir at the heart of campus, enveloped by urbanization.

Like many natural ecosystems nestled within development, OU’s biology preserves require steady observation and upkeep to thrive in their natural pocket. The majority needs some level of restoration to support regional life and weed out invasive species.

Ten acres of Oakland University’s wildlife preserves were selected for a prescribed burn in the spring of 2021 to reignite hearty native plant growth. Over the course of several months, biology faculty and students planned for the correct conditions to use fire as a natural medicine to restore native growth. Prescribed burns are an ancient tradition among indigenous communities, allowing regional plants to take hold and flourish.


[MUSIC] You walk down this little trail and then it opens up into this space you would never even realize exists when you're up sitting in a classroom on campus. [MUSIC]

It's just a great way for me to feel connected and know that everything I've been learning in all my classes has real-world implications and I can see that there's still good to be done. There's important work that we can do and there's a connection to be made with the natural world. [MUSIC]

The bio preserve was set up for the purposes of research and education, and it's about 110 acres. It's broken up into two different allotments, the Western preserve and the Eastern preserve. It's a place to decompress. It's peaceful, it's more quiet, there's birds chirping, there's interesting beautiful things to look at. There aren't really any other universities in Southeast Michigan that have a nature preserve on their main campus. It's really an island about diversity. It's really surrounded by a sea of development, of urbanization and sub-urbanization. Just from the perspective of biodiversity, it's wonderful to have this resource. [MUSIC]

Though this whole area is consisted a fen, and it's a special type of wetland and what distinguishes it from other types of wetlands is that the water originates from groundwater. So this is up welling groundwater and because it spends so much time underground, it has a really unique chemical constituency that reflects the local geology. This creates very specialized plant communities in these fens and is one of the reasons that it's such a unique ecosystem.

Historically, if you looked at this wetland, it was a very open landscape. It was dominated by grasses and other herbaceous vegetation. But in the absence of fire, what we have is woody encroachment from the perimeter that eventually chokes out these wetland plants that would've been dominant historically. One of the main goals is to get rid of these exotic, invasive woody plants that have become so dominant. [BACKGROUND]

We are gathered here today to witness an iteration of a very ancient tradition among indigenous peoples. The use of fire as medicine and as a way of caring for the land.

Prescribed burning has been the process of reintroducing fire to the landscape in which fire has been a regular occurrence for thousands of years. As a result the native plant species have become really well adapted and thrive on the impacts of prescribed fire. [NOISE] Wildfire can be damaging for sure but the fires that we have here in Michigan are not like the wildfires that we see images of out west. Fire here is much lower to the ground and it's much more well contained and especially prescribed fire. It is really one of the essential tools for most Michigan landscapes to really fully enhance the biological diversity. [NOISE] [MUSIC]

So today we're going to take soil samples from each of our control and burn pots and then we will take them back to the lab and analyze them for soil moisture content. That's important because presumably the higher the water levels, the more microbial activity and the higher the decomposition. [MUSIC]

It's really nice to come out here and explore. Not only are we learning and carrying out our experiments but we also get to see so much natural biodiversity that it has to offer. Fen ecosystem down here also provides a lot of species that are not found elsewhere in Southeast Michigan, such as mink or flying squirrel. It's our job to protect it and preserve it as much as possible.

A lot of the work that we're doing here is we're looking at the species that we have, they are invading the area that's really an important one. We're not the only location that has this problem, but not all locations that have this problem have the resources to do all the research and understand the situation. So the goal with what we're doing is to understand this type of situation that exists all over the world and be able to apply what we've learned to all sorts of new situations. [MUSIC]

We are planting a whole bunch of native plant species to fends and wetland prairies is to try to learn more about management practices for those types of ecosystems as well as boost up some of the floral species.

Then the last step is to stamp it. So you want to stop it on all sides around there.

Without those floral species, there are no flowers for the pollinators and without the pollinators, there are no other species that rely on them to pollinate, as well as for food sources in addition to that. So it's just really important that we out-compete some of these woody species with more flowers. We hope that after planting a bunch of these native species and following them for either a summer or a few summers that we will understand more about invasive species and fens and how those are really affecting planting and restoration tactics. [NOISE]

I hope this is the first step towards a lot of similar activities in the future, we have a 110 acre nature preserve, almost all of which needs some sort of restoration measure, whether it'd be seed planting or prescribed burns or the like. I'm hopeful that we'll do lots of this in the future. [MUSIC]

I think if there's anything that climate change is teaching us today, it is that we cannot colonize every square inch of space on the planet for human use and still expect life to thrive. We humans are not the supreme masters, but interdependent collaborators in the bio-diverse community of life whose intricate workings we're just beginning to wrap our heads around. The bio preserves can be a school house for us in that regard. [MUSIC]

Invasive woody plants have weaved themselves throughout the wetlands, crowding Michigan’s flowering plants that are at the core of the ecosystem. While OU’s wetlands are fire-adaptive, the woody plants took to the blaze quickly and the charred open space welcomed regrowth of Michigan’s native plants in the spring of 2022.

Pollinators need flowering plants and other species rely on the pollination process for their food source, too. Biology and chemistry students have watched that process first hand through the biology preserves, and through ongoing restoration efforts, students are learning about the role people play in ecosystems of the world.

Since the burn, students continue to nurture more flowering plants, research the land and devise more ways the biology preserves can grow further. With the help of OU’s living classrooms, students can study a balance between developmental and natural growth.

To learn about Oakland University's biological preserve.

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