A railroad through Campbell Memorial Plant Preserve may have created the environment and fires needed to maintain one of Michigan’s vulnerable habitats
The Betty and Ralph Campbell Memorial Plant Preserve at Helmer Brook is tucked into the northwest corner of Battle Creek, Michigan.
A quiet, hidden spot, this MNA nature sanctuary is one of five found within city limits.
Quiet until the trains come.
Eight Amtrak trains run through the 10-acre Battle Creek area preserve each day—four each way. Amtrak has owned the track since the mid-1970s, but it changed hands often before that. Consolidated Rail Corporation and Penn Central Transportation Company are two of several.
An abrupt beginning
More than 100 years ago, fill was piled perhaps 15 to 25 feet high through a wetland complex containing various plant communities including prairie fen. The fill was used to create a base for the railroad track, but convenient transportation came with the cost of cutting the wetland in two.
The area parallel to the tracks became upland, and in a unique twist of events, the railroad running on Helmer Brook’s south edge created two other natural plant communities—mesic prairie and oak barrens.
Invasive plants were not as common at that time, allowing native plant species to make it a home. Today, such a disturbance would allow invasive plants to colonize and outcompete native plants. The habitat would be destroyed.
But without the competition of invasives, two plant communities were able to establish in Helmer Brook. According to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, fires historically burning through areas of oak barrens and mesic prairie often spread into adjacent prairie fen habitats. This fiery progression may have begun with the help of the railroad in Helmer Brook, where the sparks of passing trains ignited the dry vegetation of the oak barrens and mesic prairie. The fire, in turn spread to the neighboring prairie fen.
“This is part of the reason why Helmer exists as a good example of a prairie fen,” said Matt Schultz, MNA’s Western Regional Stewardship Organizer. “Prairies often persist around railroad tracks because in order to persist they need to have been burned.”
Fire suppression came into full force after 1940 following several Great Lakes forest fires. Instead of natural fires, those sparked by trains on the railroad tracks may have helped to maintain the prairie fen.
According to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory and Schultz, fire can decrease the amount of shrubs, trees or other woody vegetation, allowing light through to areas these plant types would normally shade. Schultz said fire also recycles dead leaf matter that can build up on the soil surface. This allows the sun to penetrate and heat the soil faster, allowing a variety of seeds to germinate more quickly.
According to the inventory, fire can also release and recycle nutrients and “played a critical role in maintaining the open conditions of Michigan prairie and oak savanna ecosystems.”
Schultz said the prairie fen surrounding the railroad tracks is part of this larger system. Oak barrens or oak savanna often form the upland portions surrounding prairie fen. The fen is a wetland community made up mainly of sedges (grasslike plants), prairie grasses and many wildflowers. Uplands typically provide the groundwater springs that flow through a fen.
Maintaining Michigan’s vulnerable habitat
With natural wildfire suppression a necessity near Battle Creek and the railroad, MNA has turned to controlled burns.
“It’s essential for that area to burn to keep it in its highest functioning state,” Schultz said.
MNA performed controlled burns annually from 2006 to 2009. Burning also helps to control invasive species like glossy buckthorn, which can continue to sprout from the seed bank for seven to eight years after plant removal.
Without fire, other invasive plants can invade. Invasion and a lack of maintenance from fire can slowly lead to biodiversity loss as invasive species push and shade out native species, Schultz said.
But recent events have shown how controlled burns may help replace the possible railroad fires of the past. Schultz said certain types of orchids need plenty of light to germinate. He thinks the yellow lady slipper orchid recently seen at Helmer Brook may be such a case, as it has appeared in two recently burned areas of the preserve.