TOPEKA — Each spring, huge swaths of the Flint Hills are burned to help preserve the prairie and provide richer fodder for cattle.
With the flames come smoke and airborne particulates. A widespread burn last spring bumped Wichita's air pollution levels to the worst in the nation, driving Sedgwick County's ozone levels 25 to 30 percent over federal air pollution limits.
As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering stricter ozone limits, urban areas including Wichita and Kansas City worry that the annual grassland burns could push them out of compliance.
On Friday, the state Senate Natural Resources Committee started hearings focused on the proposed EPA regulations and burning in the tallgrass prairie.
The federal proposal would shift the standard from 75 parts per billion to between 60 and 70 parts per billion. A monitoring station at Peck, south of Wichita, averaged about 70 parts per billion between 2007 and 2009.
"Wichita has been very proactive in trying not to get into a nonattainment situation," said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, who chairs the committee. "But last year, because we burnt off the Flint Hills in such a short period of time, that caused a problem not just for us but for other states."
Urban and rural interests are going to have to work together to come up with a burn management plan that works for both, she said.
McGinn also introduced a resolution asking Congress to exempt the Flint Hills from the EPA standard and recognize the area as a unique ecosystem that needs to burn for its own preservation.
The fires help clear away last season's old growth, returning nutrients to the soil and making way for new, nutritious grass that cattle can graze on. The ecosystem is maintained mostly through fire and grazing, said Kristen Hase, natural resource program manager at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, which encompass more than 10,000 acres in the Flint Hills.
The annual fires are key to preserving the grasslands in the Flint Hills, said Steve Swaffar, director of natural resources for the Kansas Farm Bureau.
"In the Flint Hills, if you don't burn, there are no management tools that can keep the trees and the brush from invading the prairie and turning it into a woodland," he said.
The problem is the timing of the burns. Ideally, the grasslands should burn in the spring, but the right combination of wind speed and direction and moisture levels doesn't always happen.
"What tends to happen is you are lucky if you get three days, so all of the Flint Hills goes up in three days," Hase said.
Widespread burning at the same time — coupled with the wrong weather factors — caused the pollution problem in Wichita last spring.
Although the burns are important for the Flint Hills, cities facing tougher restrictions worry that smoke from the fires could put them out of compliance with federal regulations.
"The economic cost to downwind communities like Johnson County is potentially enormous," said Johnson County's chief environmental staffer Cindy Kemper, in a written statement. "We could be looking at a mandatory vehicle inspection and maintenance program for the Kansas City area or reformulated gasoline requirements."
McGinn said that if Wichita gets into non-attainment, "it is going to cost our business a lot of money on decreasing the amount of emissions that they allow."
State Rep. Tom Moxley, R-Council Grove, who is a farmer and rancher, told the committee he was convinced the state could find a solution but warned, "traditions die hard, so some degree of patience will be required."
The committee will continue the hearings Feb. 5.