Archive for Monday, March 8, 2010

Prairie fires create a heated debate

Environmentalists say smoke’s polluting effects on air quality outweigh benefits

Todd Peterson drags a “fire stick” behind a four-wheeler, dripping kerosene to spread fire, on the Joe Mushrush Ranch near Strong City in this 2004 file photo. Every spring, pastures in the Flint Hills are burned to clear the way for new growth.

Todd Peterson drags a “fire stick” behind a four-wheeler, dripping kerosene to spread fire, on the Joe Mushrush Ranch near Strong City in this 2004 file photo. Every spring, pastures in the Flint Hills are burned to clear the way for new growth.

March 8, 2010

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— 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.

Comments

cowboy 5 years, 1 month ago

Please explain how burning only 1/3 of the prairie would benefit the oil , gas , livestock , and wind energy . Please explain the excessive grazing , herbicide usage , as it relates to the native grasses issue. Mr Cardinal seems to be a bit confused on the issues he is testifying about.

timetospeakup 5 years, 1 month ago

Wow Chris works for the Sierra Club now. He follows whatever leftie cause he thinks will get him fame, he doesn't actually have principals.

No this is unfounded, I knew him in college back when he was still a dance major.

Jeff Barclay 5 years, 1 month ago

Science is against the Sierra Club's views.

kansasmutt 5 years, 1 month ago

Burn them off , just like it should be. It keeps the plains the way they should be , fresh and awesome to look at each year. Mother nature used to burn them every year with lightning. If ya dont like it , move to Con , they have lots of do gooders.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 1 month ago

By definition, human-induced and controlled prairie fires aren't natural. The pollution it creates is also not "natural," so it's quite reasonable that the frequency and scope of the burns not be determined strictly by what's convenient and (supposedly) most profitable for the ranchers who do it.

No one (including Sierra Club) is saying that burns should be banned-- merely that they need to be moderated to lessen the effects of those who happen to live downwind. There's absolutely nothing unreasonable about such a request.

imastinker 5 years, 1 month ago

Fires may give off smoke and the dreaded carbon dioxide, but let's talk about how much benefit we get from all those plants sucking up KC's carbon dioxide the rest of the year.

It seems to me that we benefit pretty greatly from anything that makes the flint hills healthier.

MissinLawrence 5 years, 1 month ago

Wouldn't this have been more benefical to talk about prior to burning, like during the fall and winter months, considering some of the ranchers are starting to burn later this week and early next week. if you go to emporiagazette.com, scroll to the bottom and look for the event titled something like 'flames of the flint hills' or 'burning the flint hills' they are events that allow others (not being ranchers) to come to the hills and help burn, learn what actually goes on and have a great chuckwagon. I did this last year, and plan on going again. Chris needs to read "Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden" by Gilbert L. Wilson and read how the "natives" actually used the land.

hipper_than_hip 5 years, 1 month ago

The Flint Hills burning season is fairly short, usually less than two or three weeks. Exempting the burn days from the EPA monitoring schedule is probably the way to go.

I'll be burning my 14 acres of prairie sometime next month.

cowboy 5 years, 1 month ago

One Size does not fit all in this issue. There is really solid research that supports the annual burning of grazed natural prairie. Increased forage , control of weeds and woody invasive plants. On ungrazed or set aside prairie , once every four years is adequate to maintain the grasses health. Competing issues such as KC's air quality versus the benefits ecologically of a healthy prairie environ are probably a wash although much of it can't be measured.

zzgoeb 5 years, 1 month ago

K-state's own experts at Konza Prairie are using the 3 year burn cycle. So, the 1/3 rule is right...the ranchers do need to take some responsibility for the smoke. On the other hand, drive into KC on any weekday of the year, and it's apparent that they are "making" plenty of ozone on their own!!!

tao7 5 years, 1 month ago

Does anyone know when the burning usually starts? Like to go and get some pics.

Danielle Brunin 5 years, 1 month ago

TOB-"I'm pretty sure the grass burning is the least of KC's ozone issues."

It's funny because it's true!

tyson travis 5 years, 1 month ago

Prevailing westerly wind flow means probably very few of these grasslands ever suck up any of KC's CO2, that's probably absorbed by Iowa and Illinois cornfields. The Flint Hills, if it does consume CO2, probably gets most of it from Denver. Down here in Arkansas, they burn off the rice stubble after harvest to facilitate replanting. The particulate and smoke haze is more irritating to those with respiratory problems than the small amount of CO2 released. The Flint Hills are beautiful, controlled burning probably does help preserve them and replicates a natural event from the days of the buffalo herds.

Vic 5 years, 1 month ago

Wouldn't lessening the burning of fields promote over-grazing? Even if it was only 1/3 of the fields burned, that means 2/3's of the fields do not get burned and, therefore, will be over-used and over-grazed because they are not growing enough food. Think before you post people.

rbwaa 5 years, 1 month ago

@tao7 - it has probably already started or will within the next week --- the burn is definitely a beautiful sight to see

cowboy 5 years, 1 month ago

Mac , I don't think i can agree with ya on that one , you look at the density of the stocking versus the massive acreage available. Raising stock is a fine art of keeping your cattle where they are getting maximum gain and getting rid of them at the right time. Peak grass season in a normal year is May 1 thru early august , after that the prairie browns out , makes a little comeback in fall then goes dormant. Last year kansas had prime grass all summer due to the high rain amounts. I would not deny that some cattle folks over graze but its detrimental to their own cause as their going to lose potential money if they do. Let's put it this way , the dumb rancher over grazes. The best rancher is also the best grass grower. If you don't have the rainfall a really nice grassland can look like a barren one by august. You make an educated guess what your land can carry and if the heavens don't cooperate you have over grazed or you're having to supplement to keep your daily gain growing. Depending on your market price it may make sense to invest more in your cattle or it may not if the market is down. Farmers are playing casino in many ways

cowboy 5 years, 1 month ago

Mac , I don't think i can agree with ya on that one , you look at the density of the stocking versus the massive acreage available. Raising stock is a fine art of keeping your cattle where they are getting maximum gain and getting rid of them at the right time. Peak grass season in a normal year is May 1 thru early august , after that the prairie browns out , makes a little comeback in fall then goes dormant. Last year kansas had prime grass all summer due to the high rain amounts. I would not deny that some cattle folks over graze but its detrimental to their own cause as their going to lose potential money if they do. Let's put it this way , the dumb rancher over grazes. The best rancher is also the best grass grower. If you don't have the rainfall a really nice grassland can look like a barren one by august. You make an educated guess what your land can carry and if the heavens don't cooperate you have over grazed or you're having to supplement to keep your daily gain growing. Depending on your market price it may make sense to invest more in your cattle or it may not if the market is down. Farmers are playing casino in many ways

verity 5 years, 1 month ago

I believe that most of the ranchers in the Flint Hills have inherited their ranches and hope to pass them on to future generations. From my experience growing up on a farm, these kind of people try to do what is best for the long term, not short term profits. A lot of them have degrees from Kansas State---despite what many in Lawrence might think, K State does have a great agricultural school with degrees in many different areas and they do a lot of research.

I would tend to think that the Flint Hills ranchers in general know what they are doing and do what is best for the land.

And if I recall my history correctly, the Native Americans also set fires purposely---they didn't just wait for the lightning.

verity 5 years, 1 month ago

Cowboy, I didn't see your comment before I posted. You say it much better.

lmb 5 years, 1 month ago

Hey Vic, how 'bout you think before YOU comment?

The cattle prefer the FRESHLY burned grasses--burn in spring and chomp all summer long. The 2nd and 3rd year growth is still eaten, but not as much and provides habitat for other wildlife. Over grazing is caused by having too many animals per acre--that issue isn't so much about burning but about being greedy and trying to raise and sell more animals than the land can sustain.

Vic 5 years, 1 month ago

@lmb

"The cattle prefer the freshly burned grasses" "Over grazing is caused by having too many animals per acre"

So if you are only burning 1/3 of the acreage in a year, then, since the cattle will naturally prefer move to the freshly burned acreage, they will be over-grazing naturally. Hence, less burning promotes overgrazing. Thank you for making my point.

Chris Golledge 5 years, 1 month ago

Ever seen old pictures or read old accounts of this area? There were very few trees, because fires went through often enough to keep them cleared off. Prairie species are adapted to fire and fires help keep the diversity up.

Cowboy has it; let the farmers be.

Janet Lowther 5 years, 1 month ago

You know, burning has been proven to be THE effective way to maintain a prairie. Just go and look at the KU test pots north of town.

It doesn't take a skilled ecologist to tell that the regularly burnt plot looks much better than the grazed or mowed plots.

OldEnuf2BYurDad 5 years, 1 month ago

"By definition, human-induced and controlled prairie fires aren't natural. The pollution it creates is also not "natural," so it's quite reasonable that the frequency and scope of the burns not be determined strictly by what's convenient and (supposedly) most profitable for the ranchers who do it. "

If nature was left to it's own devices, one lightening strike would burn millions of acres for days on end. You make it seem like there is too much burning because of the evil money-grubbing ranchers. I think it's a far more reasonable assumption that ranchers burn LESS than mother nature would on her own.

The environmental left has gone as far awry as the extreme right. They all just jump on some idea because it's anti-corporate, not because of science or even common sense.

tolawdjk 5 years, 1 month ago

Good luck on getting that. Utah tried their exceptional events provision. GOt them nowhe e.

Robert Rauktis 5 years, 1 month ago

If we need to get into minorities, the Native Americans helped things along by burn offs. Lightning does the same. The prairies grasses have an INCREDIBLE root system so that they are the dry lands equivalent to an ice berg. LOTS of CO2 storage.

A problem with "natural" is that it has to comply with evolution and it takes energy to keep things static. The only thing predictable is change.

Maybe what we should do is buy out the ranchers with funds reserved for schools. That'll keep things "natural".

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 1 month ago

"If nature was left to it's own devices, one lightening strike would burn millions of acres for days on end."

I suppose that has occasionally happened. But the reason that that would be a "bad" thing is because it would conflict with human economic activity that's only been around for 150 years or less, and which by definition is not "natural." So there is no reason to hold onto the pretense that the burning we're talking about is in any way natural.

"You make it seem like there is too much burning because of the evil money-grubbing ranchers."

I guess "money-grubbing" is in the eye of the beholder, and you're welcome to behold this any way you like, dad. But the simple fact is that while this burn regimen may be good for the ranchers, it's not so good for those who live downwind. Should the rights of ranchers to burn any time and any way they want take precedence over the right of other people to breathe? Apparently, many on this thread think so.

ralphralph 5 years, 1 month ago

The EPA rules need to compensate for the natural cycle of burning in the grasslands. It is a beneficial and organic process that not only needs to occur regularly, but WILL occur regularly, whether you want it to or not.

You cannot choose to NOT have grassland fires. You can only manage where, when and how often they occur. Unless you're going to plow them all under, the grasses (and other accompanying plant species) will grow taller and thicker with successive un-burned seasons, such that when the inevitable and natural fire occurs in an unmanaged way, the fuel stock will be excessive and there will be damage to manmade structures as well as risk to the lives of people, animals and beneficial plants.

The fires will happen, with or without man's involvement. Those making and enforcing the law need to inform themselves and to provide for that reality. To say that fires on the prairie must stop burning is like saying the wind must stop blowing or the rain must stop falling. Craft the solution based on science and the wisdom of experience.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 1 month ago

"The fires will happen, with or without man's involvement."

True enough. And right now, they happen when and where humans decide that they will happen. While the humans who do these burns want to do it every year, on every field, that was never how nature did it, and humans don't have to either.

gatekeeper 5 years, 1 month ago

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. ///////

It sounds like mother nature wants trees, not just prairie grass. Why not let mother nature take over? There are places for trees and places for grass???? That's his opinion, not natures. Lightning will start fires. It's the same issues they have in the mtns. They stop all of the fires started by lightning because it may burn someone's house (who chose to build in a fire area) instead of letting mother nature do as it has done for millenia. We need to quit screwing around with nature and just live in it. Farm the amount of cattle that the land naturally can sustain.

Yawnmower 5 years, 1 month ago

So the Sierra club is concerned with "the right of other people to breathe?"

I am just not clear on what their point is. The ranchers burn since it is the current, best known way to manage the land.

If people could not breathe then wouldn't there be a national emergency with overflowing hospitals etc?

Constructive critcism can be beneficial, but recommending restrictions based on a project with no defined goal is a true waste of time to everyone.

Mixolydian 5 years, 1 month ago

Wasn't this article a rehash of the same topic a month ago?

Is there really not enough news to report on that the LJ World has to re-print an old article?

Joe Hyde 5 years, 1 month ago

I agree with MacHeath, that far too many areas of pasture grassland in Kansas get overgrazed. You can tell it easily by how short and thin the pasture looks, combined with the presence of various woody-stemmed species. I'm not convinced that burning such damaged areas helps much, as overgrazing may already have made it too late for burning to deliver any significant benefit. (What kind of fire can you have when the grass stalks have been nibbled down to stubs just an inch tall?)

But in pastures that are more conservatively managed, the grass gets grazed more lightly by fewer animals (or large herds are left on the pasture only for short periods) . A denser thatch can develop, individual grass plants are healthier, thus the many benefits of fire are more pronounced. It's a tricky balancing act, one that a demand for fast, short-term profits throws out of kilter.

One thing: I love the smell of grassland smoke. Stings my eyes during the brief burning time, but it sure smells good. It's also fun soon after the burnoffs are completed to watch birds like the upland sandpiper fly from fence post to fence post as they scan the ground for injured and exposed insects. I guess I'm easily entertained.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 1 month ago

'If people could not breathe then wouldn't there be a national emergency with overflowing hospitals etc?"

When surface ozone levels get too high, a significant number of people really do have difficulty breathing. That is their point.

Jock Navels 5 years, 1 month ago

i was born and raised in the flinthills...the ranchers are bottom line only...they will claim to be stewards of the land, but theey really only care about the 5 native plants tht the cattle thrive on...they way overgraze the land, scalping it, then burning and spraying it to keep it going...and they need to be held responsible for the pollution and costs of the pollution of their burnings...why shouldn't theey be? if i took my truck and dumped a bunch of my garbage in their yards, they would be up in arms, i'm sure. a more natural intensive rotation and a once every three years burn is not unreasonable....

number1jayhawker 5 years, 1 month ago

Just went to a ksu extension workshop a couple of weeks ago. They recommend burning of your pastures because it helps get rid of unwanted tree seedlings, weeds AND puts back valuable nutrients into the soil. This helps reduce the usage of chemicals on our pastures for weed and tree control, along with minimizing fertilzer requirements.

Vic 5 years, 1 month ago

Honestly, are we really that close to pushing the limits of the EPA regulations? I mean, we are in Kansas. This isn't LA. We don't have a perpetual haze of smog hanging over us. We experience on a daily basis some of the cleanest air in the country. I highly doubt things are as bad as some one of the extreme liberal left would like us to think they are. There is another motive here that hasn't been revealed. I say leave the farmers alone.

OldEnuf2BYurDad 5 years, 1 month ago

"I suppose that has occasionally happened."

If "yearly" is your definition of "occasionally", then yes.

admireed 5 years, 1 month ago

Drive the Turnpike south of Topeka and look at all the trees that have ben allowed to grown up because of no control (burning). One of these days a lightning or trash fire will take this forest out along with several homes. People will raise H

Edward McKernan Admire, KS

MissinLawrence 5 years, 1 month ago

Multi...it did go up. it was orignally at $120.

MissinLawrence 5 years, 1 month ago

Multi...it did go up. it was orignally at $120.

ralphralph 5 years, 1 month ago

Landowners using good management practices are not necessarily burning every parcel of grass every year ... in fact, most are not. Some will use a set rotation, but most will evaluate the condition of their pastures each year and determine what is necessary for the grass to remain healthy and "clean". Overgrazing is a sin in their books, and overburning would be just as bad. Even so, they are not running a garden showplace, and they are going to manage the grass with forage production in mind, and that is a good and natural thing. I agree that those who are too focused on the short-term, and would overuse the resource, do more harm to the world than burning as part of a long-term management plan.

The main need for spraying in our area is not overgrazing or overburning ... it is Sericea Lespedeza, which is a non-native, unpalatable ground cover introduced by our very own Federal Government. If not controlled, it crowds out all native species - beneficial and otherwise - and completely ruins the grassland. In any given year, the cost to spray for lespedeza can be more than the income the land generates.

EPA needs to recognize that the prairie is going to burn. Part of it is going to burn every year, and if it is to be beneficial fire, it needs to occur during the optimal time in the early spring. When that happens, there is going to be a bit of a haze in the air for awhile, just as there always has been when the prairie burns. It makes no sense to then go haywire and change all the fuel regulations, etc., for the entire year for the Kansas City metro area.

Let's nurture some brain matter here, as well as the planet.

tolawdjk 5 years, 1 month ago

http://www.dhe.state.ks.us/aq/

That has the air quality data, realtime.

Right now, ozone 8-hour averages look worst in Topeka and Johnson Co. with .042. Ozone 8s right now are .075. I believe the current discussion would be to push it down between .07 to .065.

gr 5 years, 1 month ago

"By definition, human-induced and controlled prairie fires aren't natural. The pollution it creates is also not "natural," so it's quite reasonable that the frequency and scope of the burns not be determined strictly by what's convenient and (supposedly) most profitable for the ranchers who do it."

By definition?

By whose definition?

Do you think humans are not "natural"? How so?

Suppose there were no cows out there. Do you think there would be no reason to burn the prairies?

geekin_topekan 5 years, 1 month ago

"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." ++++ So its the EPA, the Cities of Wichita and KC or who exactly is complaining? Has the EPA actually issued warnings or is this just another spin on JOCOs believing that the world revolves around them?

Here's an idea. Instead of imposing upon the ranchers and mother nature, why don't the JOCOs and the EPA mandate a ban on all automobiles and offer free public transportation during the burn season? That would eliminate the excess smog and clear the hills of undesirable flora. It's win/win.

Problem solved. No charge. Donations graciously accepted though.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 1 month ago

natural |ˈna ch ərəl| adjective 1 existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind : carrots contain a natural antiseptic that fights bacteria | natural disasters such as earthquakes.

chasmo 5 years, 1 month ago

The ranchers in the flint hills have been fantastic caretakers! Leave them alone and let them take care of the hills. KC makes more pollution in a day than all the flint hills do in a year. So scr@w em.

cowboy 5 years, 1 month ago

The epa / air quality board in KC is pretty much a joke. If you are found to be in excess of your allotted emissions its a "fine" . since the agency is fee funded by fines / fees they just assess a monetary penalty and move on . At least that was my experience many years ago while running a printing company up there.

Sierra club would really like to just shut down all raw land and make it a preserve. Seems a revolving door of activists and a "cause du jour " approach . Probably provides a necessary check and balance though in the big picture.

Cooky_the_Cook 5 years, 1 month ago

Natural=good. Anything made by humans is by definition bad. If you people would read your bibles, paying attention to the part about Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit, then you would understand this. Now quit playing with matches and stay the hell off of God's lawn.

gr 5 years, 1 month ago

"adjective 1 existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind "

Ahhhh. By human definition.

So are you saying humans are not natural? If you take as what Cooky says, and that man was created by God as stewards of the earth to take care of nature, then one could say that man is set apart, set above, held to a higher responsibility than the rest of nature. Therefore, one could say that man's activity is not natural and should be questioned whether it has a good purpose or bad.

Otherwise, man and his activities is just as natural as an insect forming a gall in order to adapt its environment for its purposes.

Bozo, do you believe in the direct creation of man by God?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 1 month ago

There are several possible definitions of "natural," but in this context, no human activity is defined as "natural." So while humans certainly have a great impact on the natural world, that doesn't mean human activity is "natural," because by definition, it is not. That said, you're free to apply any definition to any word you like, gr, but you may find it difficult to communicate with others if you get too carried away with that.

"do you believe in the direct creation of man by God?"

No. But the various gods are creations of humans (which means they aren't natural.)

5 years, 1 month ago

I've attended and photographed one of these events, it's a lot more complicated to do safely and properly than I knew. But very interesting and it was very educational for me:

Here is a link to my photographs:

http://peatpics.com/gallery2/main.php?g2_itemId=22905

gr 5 years, 1 month ago

So bozo, you are saying that humans aren't "natural" because we (at least one definition you found) say we aren't.

And you are ok with that kind of reasoning?

And would that mean if we changed that definition (or find another definition), then we could be natural and you would simply and blindly accept that without questioning the reasoning?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 1 month ago

I'm almost afraid to ask, but what's your point, gr?

lounger 5 years, 1 month ago

K-state has ongoing study's on burning. Last update was 3-7 year burning. A burn every year in the same spot of prairie will eventually destroy that spot. So will overgrazing. So will development. Smart ranching is the flint hills last hope. Bison as well as cattle too!

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