Topeka — The annual torching of the Flint Hills has ranchers and environmentalists at odds, with government officials caught in between.
The Wichita and Kansas City areas are facing the prospect of being out of compliance with ozone rules set by the Environmental Protection Agency because of smoke that drifts from the massive burning that occurs each spring.
Senate Concurrent Resolution 1623 urges Congress to exempt the Flint Hills from a smoke management plan mandated by the EPA. And an amendment to the resolution proposed by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment would have EPA exclude air monitoring on days when there is burning in the Flint Hills. The proposals are before the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
Supporters of prairie burning say it is important to the cattle industry and maintaining the economy of the Flint Hills and tallgrass prairie.
Ranchers and their support scientists have this figured out to the dollar.
Burning at the correct time during the spring increases forage per acre, which puts more meat on the cattle, which puts more money in the pockets of ranchers. “Timing is everything,” said Clenton Owensby, a range management scientist at Kansas State University.
Gary Naughton, a forester for the past 50 years, says the burning also prevents the invasion of unwanted plants and trees. “Ranchers have fought trees forever,” Naughton said. “There are places for trees and places for grass,” he said. Naughton said the Flint Hills covers approximately 4.5 million acres, and each year as many as 2 million acres are burned.
That’s just way too much, said Chris Cardinal, with the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club.
Cardinal said the Sierra Club doesn’t want to stop all burning. “Burning approximately one-third of the prairie each year would go a long way to meeting the EPA air quality standards, would be beneficial to the long-term health of not only the prairie ecosystem, but also to the day-to-day livestock, oil, gas and wind energy operations,” he said.
He also said much of the language of the resolution is plain fiction. One part of the resolution states: “The Flint Hills is one of the few places in the United States where the prevailing agricultural system works essentially in tandem with an ancestral native ecosystem, preserving most of its complexity and the dynamic processes that shape it.”
Cardinal responded by saying, “Unplowed ground in Kansas that is used intensively for agricultural purposes and subjected to frequent burning, excessive grazing and spraying of herbicides is not a functioning ancestral ‘native’ ecosystem.”
The committee will work on the issue this week.