Archive for Monday, January 25, 2010

K.C. area burned by Flint Hills prairie fires

Each Spring, ranchers in the Flint Hills burn their grazing lands to encourage new growth. Smoke from the fires drifts eastward toward the Kansas City metro area, and has in the past skewed air quality readings.

Each Spring, ranchers in the Flint Hills burn their grazing lands to encourage new growth. Smoke from the fires drifts eastward toward the Kansas City metro area, and has in the past skewed air quality readings.

January 25, 2010


— When the Flint Hills burn, the Kansas City area gets a big headache.

Now the Legislature is peering through the smoke of a classic urban-rural conflict.

Ranchers in the Flint Hills burn their pastures to provide nutritious new growth for grazing cattle and to prevent invasive trees from taking root on the grassy landscape.

But the smoke from burning millions of acres is spewing into urban areas that already are struggling with ozone limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Those areas face increased costs for more stringent air pollution controls, which increases the cost of doing business.

“You can imagine how difficult it is to justify additional air pollution controls locally when smoke from the agricultural burning in out-state areas not only remains uncontrolled, but makes the local problem worse,” said Cindy Kemper, Johnson County’s chief environmental staffer.

State Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, chairwoman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, is bringing the varied interests to the table to try to work out a smoke management plan.

“We need to start finding solutions to meet air quality standards and sustain this great natural resource,” McGinn said.

“We have to ensure our business industries are not burdened by increased regulations due to nonattainment (of federal air pollution standards). At the same time, we must be able to allow managed burning in the Flint Hills to maintain grassland that provides vital unmatched habitat for everything from butterflies to prairie chickens and livestock,” she said.

Much easier said than done.

Some have suggested limiting the size of fires and spreading them out over a longer period of time.

But this runs contrary to what ranchers say they need to do.

Barb Downey, who owns a 6,500-acre cattle ranch in Riley and Wabaunsee counties, says there is a short period of one or two weeks to burn the grass at the right time of growth and under the right weather conditions.

“When we have the right window, we have to light as much as we can as quickly as we can. We go after it hard and fast,” Downey said.

“If we’ve got a good day, we’ve got to go, and everyone in the Flint Hills does the same,” she said.

But all sides at this point indicate they are willing to cooperate and try to come up with a plan.

Rep. Tom Moxley, R-Council Grove and a lifelong rancher, said, “Traditions die hard, so some degree of patience will be required of all parties.”


geekin_topekan 7 years, 2 months ago

And? Fire is a natural occurring event and necessary unless you want to live in a pine forest and get eaten by midges all summer long. Oh wait, money and government can keep your Utopian suburb fresh as a daisy. More government!!

chasmo 7 years, 2 months ago

here in the city we belch out thousands of tons of co2 and all sorts of particulate matter 24-7. We burn coal in out power plants to keep the city lit and drive everywhere we go, often with only one person per suv.

By contrast the flint hills suck up co2 and clean our air 24-7 year after year for thousands of years. It is a small price to pay to have an annual burn which is over quickly and rejuvenates the prairie. We have already destroyed more than 90% of the prairie. Lets let the good stewards who care about the land, who live there, take care of it. We should stay out of their way.

jumpin_catfish 7 years, 2 months ago

This burning is necessary and doesn't hurt anything.

Kris_H 7 years, 2 months ago

Would it be possible to get some type of variance for the period of burning from the Federal air quality control folks? I mean, some of them live in Kansas and Missouri too, they should know how necessary the burning is.

If that area isn't burned it will result in overgrowth of brush and trees and eventually an UNcontrolled burn with possibly tragic consequences.

lucky_guy 7 years, 2 months ago

What evidence is offered to support the contention that grass burning is not just a transient issue? Why is there always an ozone alert in the summer in KC when there is no grass land burning? I think the legislature would be better off giving KC some help with their often messed up bid to get a public transportation system going than stop burning the grass land.
Oh, by the way after a few years of not burning,if the cedar tree haven't taken over, mother nature will burn the grass land herself, its only natural.

Bruce Bertsch 7 years, 2 months ago

How did nature handle this before man started "controlled burns"? Where were all the trees then? Were the grasslands not suitable? What if itrains during that one week window? Sounds more like a case of, "But we've always done it that way."

Jeremiah Jefferson 7 years, 2 months ago

Kansas City is nothing but a giant cess pool to start with, a little extra smoke isnt going to hurt anything. Besides, its all natural smoke lol.

labmonkey 7 years, 2 months ago

The EPA are idiots. First calling CO2 a pollutant, and now lowering the smog limits so they can charge fines in places like Kansas (or deprive areas of federal highway funds). Anti-business and anti-farmer.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 2 months ago

From what I've read, previous to the last 100-150 years of heavily controlled burns, the prairie burned every 2-5 years, although Native Americans were known to do set quite a few burns, too.

So it would appear that ranchers really don't need to burn every year. They could easily go to a 2 or 3 year burn cycle (and save themselves quite a bit of work in the process.)

Obviously, once set, fires aren't going to respect property lines, so this would require some coordination among property owners, but it probably already does.

Lacy Mohler 7 years, 2 months ago

My husband has to travel through the Flint Hills for work and the smoke every spring is a nightmare because of an asthma condition. He at least knows it will only be for a week. Let the farmers and ranchers handle this. Don't stretch the burning out for weeks. Kansas City air is bad everyday-- not just for one week a year.

cowboy 7 years, 2 months ago

You get a two week window which is the "right" time , then you have to wait for favorable wind direction and speed. Yeah I think the gov't would really be good at this , Not !

rbwaa 7 years, 2 months ago

driving through the flint hills at night during the burn is spectacular and worth the smoke...besides it only lasts a week or so... it looks like johnson county is the main complainer -- “You can imagine how difficult it is to justify additional air pollution controls locally when smoke from the agricultural burning in out-state areas not only remains uncontrolled, but makes the local problem worse,” said Cindy Kemper, Johnson County’s chief environmental staffer. -- besides who was here first - johnson county [urban areas] or flint hills?

oklahoma 7 years, 2 months ago


If the grass is burned only every 2-3 years, the fires will be massive and likely get out of control, burning down the thousands of houses and buildings that have been placed on the prairies in the last 150 years.

Moxley and McGinn should know better, being ranchers. If this kind of legislation passes, I hope they are sent packing this November.

This is not a liberal or conservative issue, except of course for the liberal, nonsensical agenda that Scott Rothschild is peddling. Imagine how the article would read if he got of town and actually got dozens of comments from the thousands of ranchers that would be opposed to this legislation. Unfortunately, unless the KLA takes up this issue, the legislators may blow it through before the ranchers know what hit them.

trinity 7 years, 2 months ago

oh god this is laughable...i s'pose ms kemper drives a big ol' suv, too. leave the dang flint hills alone!

Kris_H 7 years, 2 months ago


Nature "handles" it by having lightning strikes start UNcontrolled prairie fires that, if they get going well enough, will sweep over vast areas of the land regardless of what buildings/people/roads/etc. might be in the path.

I don't think we want to do it THAT way, do you?

Stuart Evans 7 years, 2 months ago

lets all chip in and get Johnson county a dome. uppity bastages.

newmedia 7 years, 2 months ago

No story here. KC needs to worry about their real problems that occur on a daily basis rather than a little smoke from the southwest once or twice a year.

JohnBrown 7 years, 2 months ago

Prairie burning began before the auto was invented. Instead of KC cleaning up their mess, they now want to externalize the blame. KC should remember, except during the burn, the prairie is soaking up CO2 and helping reduce KC's CO2 problem. So, on an annual basis it's a zero sum game, UNLESS the burned prairie acreage has increased since then.. So, if KC wants to monetize the prairie's burn contribution to their air quality problem they should first provide "annualized" CO2 numbers since they started gathering them. They should then compare the growth in acreage burned per year with the growth of the city limits (or population) per year. This way they can numerically compare the relative contributions to KC's annualized air problem from increased acreage of prairie burning vs an increase in CO2 caused by KC's growth.

Otherwise, KC's leaders should buck up.

KS 7 years, 2 months ago

Sort of depends on which way the wind is blowing to affect KC. It is a part of the tradition of cattle ranching and owning the property. Leave them alone.

tolawdjk 7 years, 2 months ago

I remember one particularly wet spring, musta been '00 or '01 and we got a call from Tennessee asking what the hell was going on because they had backtracked the air mass that lead to their ozone spike and it came from the flint hills burning.

Chris Golledge 7 years, 2 months ago

What are the numbers?

What is the baseline level of ozone when the hills are not being burnt? How is that determined?

What is the difference when they are being burnt?

What is the the EPA requirement?

Less opinion, more facts, please.

farva 7 years, 2 months ago

Contrary to popular belief, most of the ranchers burn annually. Not every 2-5 years, which is ideal. Burning annually at the same time just serves their own interests of maximum grass production, with no ecological advantages they always like to claim. The time of year they burn is terrible for wildlife..burning 1000s of acres right during nesting season every year removes all the cover and also transitions the plant community-- the prairie has lost an enormous amount of diversity in its flowers. Native prairie isn't that spectacular after its been intensively managed wrong for years and degraded down to the same quality of CRP. One of the main reasons that prairie chickens populations are crashing is because their primary habitat is large open grasslands of the flint hills, and now their nesting grounds are being burned every year, kind of hard to reproduce if there is no cover. It's not just the chickens, but the same for all native wildlife.

Variation in time of year and frequency of burns is necessary. Hopefully if the legislature actually meddles in this, they will address that.

cowboy 7 years, 2 months ago

Farva , you have no idea what youre talking about. There is a right time to burn which does not damage the grass crowns. You have to wait till you have sufficient drying of the dead grass , but hit it before the crown starts to grow out , this makes for a short prime period. This timing does not damage the grass but does hit the earlier emerging weed populations. Burning every few years increases the fuel load tremendously and also decreases the health of the grass stand due to older dead growth covering new emerging grass. You have a very healthy flint hills that contributes a huge amount to the state economy and remains a treasure. Let the farmers do what is right and keep loons like yourself out of it.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 2 months ago

Seems to me you and farva are arguing different things, cowboy. Farva is arguing for what's best for wildlife, while you are arguing for what is best for commercial purposes.

cowboy 7 years, 2 months ago

Bozo , most farmers are cognizant of the wildlife population on their land , we burn our pastures every year but do have set aside areas we don't disturb and having growing quail populations on our ground . Yes I'm sure that in the past 200 years there has been wildlife impact but prairie chickens rank relatively low on my priority scale to be quite honest about it. Using that logic the entire population of the US should move out. It's not what it was but it's still pretty fabulous.

Kristine Bailey 7 years, 2 months ago

Didn't burn our 80 acre Native for a couple of years, and when we did, hellava big fire. All of that left over growth. Then you get 2 or 3 years worth of growth up in the air. These fires don't move fast. The wild life has plenty of time to move.

love2bike 7 years, 2 months ago

how about shutting down Johnson County for a couple of weeks?

Joe Hyde 7 years, 2 months ago

One of the best, though indirect, things about burning the Flint Hills every spring is that when you start seeing and smelling that smoke, the fish are gonna be biting like crazy pretty much anywhere you throw in a line.

easyliving 7 years, 2 months ago

People.... do you realize what prarie grass smoke does to shake shingle roofs? The color change is gawd awful. WTF... I can think of a million other things to be concerned about for one freaking week of the year. Leave the Ranchers alone...go back to the golf course and shut up.

Good day!

Mixolydian 7 years, 2 months ago

Everyone is missing the real danger here:

The flames being fanned too high from Frank Martin swinging on all his players.

I drove out I-70 a few years ago after dark when they were buring. Very cool and spectacular. It was like driving through hell.

JSpizias 7 years, 2 months ago

One should realize that Cindy Kemper, Johnson County’s chief environmental staffer, is also a Sierra Club member and pushing their agenda big time. Under her guidance, the County Commission signed on to a goal to reduce Johnson County CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050. As I pointed out in an email to the commissioners, this is nuts.
Johnson County has a newspaper called Best Times sent free to all those over 60 years of age. In 2008, the chair of the Johnson County Commission, Annabeth Surbaugh, had an article in this paper in which she stated that the goal of Jo Co government is to reduce county CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050. Johnson County is one of the fastest growing counties in the US. In 2006, the population was a little over 500,000. I obtained US census data from 1960 through 2006 and plotted the data on a log scale versus time. The data was fit almost perfectly to a linear plot indicating exponential growth (correlation ceofficient = 0.999). The population extrapolated to 2050 was 1.8 million. Consider the consequences of such growth if it were to occur. To keep total county CO2 emissions at the same level as that in 2006, each individual would have to reduce their per capita emissions to ~30% (0.5/1.8) of the 2006 levels. If emissions were to be reduced by 80% compared with 2006 then the per capita emissions would have to be ~6% of the per capita emissions in 2006. See what Roger Pielke Jr and Nordhaus and Shellenberger have to say about the Kyoto CO2 approach to climate. The sloppy science behind the "CO2 is climate catastrophe" is clearly shown in Climategate emails and the continued exposure of errors and mis-statements such as that about melting of the Himalayan glaciers by 2035.

JSpizias 7 years, 2 months ago

riverat, The smell of smoke not only signals that the fish will be biting but also that the sounds of sex-starved turkey gobblers will be booming over the prairie. I have hunted Chase county since 1993 and I love the beauty and the smell.

Reason McLucus 7 years, 2 months ago

The practice of burning the prairie predated the arrival of the white man and allowed the prairie to provide food for the huge buffalo herds the Plains peoples depended upon for food and other uses.

Fire is part of the prairie ecosystem. It prevents buildup of material that could produce larger fires.

kenos 7 years, 2 months ago

I'm buoyed by the intelligence of these comments. Why doesn't the LJW reflect this intelligence?

farva 7 years, 2 months ago

Cowboy, please go take a biology class and maybe an ethics class since you so easily resort to name calling. Ask any biologist--NRCS, KDWP, KBS, University Prof....anyone with a biology degree and knowledge of prairie ecosystems and they will all tell you the same in regards to burning for wildlife and diversity. It is well known that ranchers burn for max grass production and all those "weeds" you brag about killing off are native FORBS that are an imperative part of the ecosystem. Take a tour of different patches of prairies and their burn cycle/frequency, it's amazing at the difference in health. Not all plants evolved with fire tolerance. However, when natural fires did break out they were spotty and inconsistent, leaving local seed sources for those fire intolerant species. By burning every year and the same time, you are selecting the plants that benefit most at that time frame...which in the time period you are speaking would be some of the native grasses. With that, you will have good grass component, but it can easily turn into a monoculture through the dominant grasses that tend to take over (Indiangrass or Big Bluestem) and this is really not good for wildlife. On the flip side, burning in the fall overall is great for the forbs (wildflowers, etc) and does not promote grass growth.

Unfortunately too many farmers in the flint hills are ignorant about prairie ecology and just like to ride the feel happy bandwagon and portray they are doing the country an ecological service. But when someone with experience shows them differently, they often resort to calling people loons and other derogatory names just to boost their ego. It's one thing when just a small area is burned annually, but when 95% of the flint hills are burned at the same time every year, there is no adequate cover left for wildlife...there is no just "going elsewhere." Yeah, fires may move slow in certain conditions, some perish, some flee...but they can only flee so far when everything is burned to a char. Note I am not anti-burning, it cringes me when I see cedar trees and dogwoods taking over former grasslands, but it is reasonable to burn intelligently. Patch Burn. Intensive Grazing. All are other ranching methods that have proven to be lower cost, greater cattle nutrition/weight gain, and less manpower. Proven through research and by actual farmers/ranchers who were able to face their fear of change--they now love their new method of grazing. Get out of the rut and change ranching practices to benefit everything and everyone!

cowboy 7 years, 2 months ago

Burning in fall , expose the ground to elements for an entire winter and spring , the erosion would be monstrous. cover would be destroyed for wildlife all winter. Come on loon.

Rancher 7 years, 2 months ago

Flint hills ranchers have been attempting to manage the prairie as close to what occurred naturally as possible for hundreds of years. When I see the way Johnson County and the so called "green" advocates in urban areas treat the space they live in I have very little regard for their opinions on the way I am managing my grassland. When people who dwell in the cities would like to come out and strap on a backpack sprayer and learn something about weed and fire management instead of reading books written by 'experts' who have spent their lives being book educated by other experts, I would then welcome their comments.

I can assure you if our style of managing prairie (which is a long way from charring every acre every year) were not beneficial to the grass, we would no longer be in business. The prairie grasses and wildlife have survived quite nicely during the time of the buffalo when fires raged over hundreds of thousands of acres. Unfortunately since the advent of all the 'tree hugger' regulations that throw off the balance of nature and protect one species that wipe out other species things have become very out of sync. Hopefully when humans have had time to pollute and destroy their livelihood the earth will be left at peace to regenerate herself.

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