Little Fire on the Prairie

A firewall runs through it: State Farm's Woodbury campus
Michael Dvorak

On a Thursday morning in April, after waiting a couple of weeks for a day that promised neither rain nor wind, a cadre of people dressed in soot-smeared yellow shirts marched onto the grounds of State Farm Insurance's corporate campus in Woodbury. At 9:47 they fanned out and, a scant few hundred feet from the humming computer terminals of 1,700 claims representatives, underwriters, policy-services clerks, and managers, lit a prairie fire.

A member of the fire crew carrying a water tank on her back sprayed water in a circle around a pin oak sapling. Then, using a drip torch, she dripped globules of a flaming mixture of fuel oil and gasoline around the tree. The fire created a blazing doughnut around the tree, burning outward.

By 10:00 a line of blazing orange sliced across the field, occasionally exploding into eight-to-ten-foot walls of flame. Travelers on Interstate 94 saw a 2,000-foot column of black smoke towering above Woodbury's cream-colored water tower. Within a few minutes, Woodbury Assistant Fire Chief Rob Miller was on the scene, having arrived quietly, without wailing sirens or flashing lights.

Miller watched as the people in the yellow shirts carefully steered the fire, section by section, away from the building. The crew had skillfully set the fire in such a way that the light northwestern breeze propelled the flames across the field.

The blazing 15-acre field, it turns out, is part of State Farm's 60-acre regional corporate campus. Instead of installing the usual emerald turf grass with tastefully spaced shade trees when it completed the office complex in October 1996, State Farm hired Princeton-based Prairie Restorations, Inc., to plant and maintain a prairie. Fires are valuable events in natural prairie ecosystems; they act as a tonic to rejuvenate the fields of native plants. On a "created" prairie--one intentionally cultivated--a controlled burn should take place every three years. Next year Prairie Restorations will return to burn another third of the corporate prairie.

Later this month, when it pokes up through the ash, this prairie will host more than 70 native wildflower and grass species. A native prairie landscape is an environment of color, light, texture, sound, and motion that changes with the seasons. It provides food and cover for a wide variety of wildlife and is beautiful to look at and walk through.

"Our customers are a diverse group of businesses, government agencies, nonprofits, and homeowners," says Prairie Restorations founder Ron Bowen. "People are finding that restoring native landscapes on their properties provides lasting benefits."

The aesthetic reasons for having 40 different species of flowers blooming in your yard or office campus are obvious. But corporations have financial agendas, too, and keeping a lawn watered and manicured is expensive. Bowen estimates that State Farm's Woodbury prairie saved a quarter of a million dollars in landscaping costs by planting native prairie species rather than turf grass. And during the first ten years of its existence, the prairie will save another quarter-million in maintenance costs, he says. State Farm is so pleased that it hired Prairie Restorations to create prairies at its Illinois corporate headquarters and at an office complex in Maryland.

Prairie Restorations will do more than 100 burns of created and restored prairies during three weeks in April and May. H.B. Fuller, General Mills, and Blandin have all used the 24-year-old company's services, as have plenty of smaller customers such as a daycare center across the street from the Woodbury Fire Department, a couple of Minneapolis parks, and lots of residences throughout the metro area.

Bowen grew up on the fringes of suburban St. Paul. He watched as civilization crept out from the city and paved--or turfed--over the wild places he loved. "I saw those woods get cut down and the streams get put into culverts and fields turned into housing lots," he remembers. "I felt there was something wrong."

After earning a forestry degree at the University of Minnesota, Bowen went to work as a gardener for former Dayton-Hudson CEO Bruce Dayton, an environmentalist and Sen. Mark Dayton's father. "He knew a lot about wildflowers," Bowen says. "Under Bruce I had quite a bit of free rein. I was able to get a greenhouse and learn how to grow plants and how to manage seed a little bit and how to do some early restoration work."

Bowen also began to learn how to use fire to manage prairie ecosystems during his time with Dayton. Down on his knees in the black ash of the State Farm burn, he explains. "Most of the plants that have started growing in here now are cool-season exotics," he says, pointing to the charred remains of several plants not native to Minnesota: a dandelion, Kentucky bluegrass, and quack grass. "The prairie is made up of mostly warm-season [plants] and they haven't started to grow yet."

Not only will the fire retard the cool-season exotics, but the dark ash it leaves behind will allow the soil to warm quickly and jump-start such native warm-season species as side oats grama grass, and rosy-colored blazing star. Fire also discourages errant trees that try to colonize the prairie.

A few trees dot State Farm's prairie. Bowen the purist would rather they not be there; Bowen the businessman is willing to compromise. "This is sort of the corporate concept of a prairie savannah," he concedes. "But we've come an awful long way towards discovering the value of these native plantings in the last 20 years."

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