An upcoming prescribed burn is intended to restore a portion of the historic site's land back to what it once was long ago.
VICTOR — Back in the 1600s, a French settler, perhaps someone actively involved in the lively fur trade of the era, described the vast grasslands, surrounded by large oak trees, that served as a vibrant center for the Seneca people.
This native grass — not the green, manicured sod of a suburban yard — grew as tall as a man, according to Peter Jemison, manager of the Ganondagan State Historic Site. The horsemen could pass underneath the oak trees without fear of hitting the lowest branch, because the trees were that tall, Jemison said.
The lay of the land is described in a journal that has survived and provides a roadmap for those hoping to restore the land where Ganondagan now sits to what it once was during the Seneca’s heyday. One of the big questions of restoration is, restore it to what, asked Whitney Carleton, a stewardship specialist, Finger Lakes region, with the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
The journal answers that question.
“The grasslands are the perfect area to stand outside and see what the Senecas were seeing,” said Carleton, during a meeting with a handful of neighbors to explain how this local history and wildlife restoration project will be accomplished.
The grass and trees grew so tall — and the Senecas managed that growth — with the help of fire. And for the second straight spring, fire again will be used to help clear invasive species and allow for the regrowth of native grasses and wildflowers.
“The prescribed burn is a wonderful mimic of what the Senecas would have done here,” Carleton said.
At some point from now until June 11, depending on weather conditions (that, along with more pre-planning and more meetings with stakeholders, more than likely rules out February, Carleton said), a prescribed burn of another section of the site’s grasslands management area is planned.
This spring, about 37 acres of property on Boughton Hill Road at Murray Road will be scorched. Called the hickory management area — because of a large, lonely hickory tree in the middle of it — the property will be burned in three sections, the area closest to the road going first. With no vegetation to fuel the flames, the fire won’t “jump the road” to other areas, Carleton said.
If all goes well, fire-adapted and native vegetation such as Indian grass, big bluestem and little bluestem and wildflowers will grow through the blackened earth cleared of a thatch layer of invasive growth.
As it did a year ago, when the first section of grassland management area on the Ganondagan site was burned.
These grasses start growing in June and thrive in August and September, which is why they are warm season grasses, Carleton said. Yard grass is a cool season grass.
These native grasses need vast amounts of sunlight for growth, and they are also fueled by nutrients in scorched soil left behind by a burn. Oak seedlings also are invigorated by fire, Carleton said.
“These are really fire-adapted landscapes,” Carleton said.
More than 100 bird species call the site home, and many prefer the native grasslands for breeding sites, such as bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows, northern harriers and short-eared owls. Through live trapping of small mammals, such as mice, moles and voles — “anything smaller than a fat bunny,” Carleton said — researchers are studying to see if the burns will help wildlife thrive, as they suspect, according to Kira Broz, a wildlife ecology steward who is helping to conduct a bird survey.
“We want to make sure we’re improving their habitat,” Broz said.
If early indications are any sign, increased mammal activity was found in the burned area, perhaps because there was more room to roam.
Last May, a section of land at Boughton Hill Road and School Street was burned — the first conducted by the state office, although with lots of help and even more planning.
In fact, it took about three years from proposing the idea to getting approvals. Meetings with neighbors and state, town and village officials — 15 agencies in all — were done.
“Everybody’s in on it,” Carleton said.
And waiting for the ideal day to do the burn meant well, a lot of waiting.
Weather conditions — such as rain and wind — play a major factor in when the burn is done. Because so many factors go into it, Carleton said those involved prepare for the burn to be an all-day task. The earliest a date can be determined is about 48 hours in advance — and everything can change right up until the burn day is identified.
That’s why such a wide window of time for the burn is identified, because no one wants to miss that perfect day, Carleton said.
And sometimes, like it did last spring, everything works out perfectly.
“It took three years to do something that took about 22 minutes, beginning to end,” said Jemison, referring to the duration of the burn.
Joel Carlson is burn boss with Massachusetts-based Northeast Forest and Fire Management, which handled the burn last year and will do so again this year. The company manages 30 to 40 prescribed burn sites a year in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and now, New York.
Smoke is the biggest concern during the burn, Carlson said, which is why wind conditions are so closely monitored. Organizers don’t want heavy smoke to travel over nearby roads, particularly those that are heavily traveled, into populated areas or into the village. A year ago, some of the roads were closed as a precaution, but conditions were such that large plumes of smoke went straight up in the air as planned.
“Twenty-two minutes,” Carlson said. “That was a once-in-a-lifetime deal.”
Weather conditions also are a factor after the burn, because the fire is not considered “out” until at least 0.2 inches of rain have fallen, Carleton said.
In the weeks after the burn, the native species quickly filled in where the fire burned off. In fact, the grasses flourished, forcing land stewards to go back and mow in order to maintain the biodiversity, Carleton said.
“The regeneration of those grasses is incredible,” Carleton said.
Several neighbors of the site have concerns about a large fire being so close to their homes. Hearing of the extensive preparations that go into the exercise, Nancy Fisher, for one, said she feels better about it. She said how nice it is that someone is trying to restore a bit of nature that once characterized the area.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Bruce Fisher. “Certainly looking at the field is more scenic.”