Topeka 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.”