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Sunday, July 6, 2014

A better way to burn?

Ranchers deserve praise for preserving the Flint Hills prairie. But it is good that Kansas State University researchers are studying whether there are burn practices that work for ranchers but are better for the environment.

As K-State biologist Lance McNew noted in the Sunday Eagle, there wouldn’t be a tallgrass prairie running through the center of Kansas if not for ranchers. Cattle grazing and controlled burns have kept the grassland from being overtaken by cedar trees and brush and provided habitat for birds such as the greater prairie chicken.

But there’s been growing concern in recent years about the way the annual burns raise pollution levels, which can trigger breathing and other health problems and cause Wichita and other cities to exceed allowable ozone levels — possibly leading to costly pollution interventions. The burns and intensive early stocking of cattle also appear to have caused a dramatic decline in prairie chickens during the past two decades.

Last December, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a smoke-management plan for the Flint Hills. A pilot project allows ranchers to continue annual burns but encouraged them to start the burns earlier in March and be more selective about which days they burn, to reduce the daily concentration of smoke.

But recent smoky skies in Wichita have raised questions about whether the voluntary plan goes far enough and whether there are other alternatives.

One promising option to reduce pollution and preserve nesting habitat is to rotate burning on a three-year cycle. Parts of the Flint Hills that have used patch burning have seen significant increases in prairie chickens while still maintaining the prairie and achieving similar weight gains for cattle.

With funding from both the state and federal governments, K-State is conducting a four-year study comparing the impact of patch and annual burnings. Positive findings should lead more ranchers to use patch burning, particularly if the government provided a financial incentive and it was part of the smoke-management plan.

Controlled burns have a long history in the Flint Hills and are necessary to preserve the prairie. But changing to patch burning could be a win-win for ranchers and the environment.

— For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee

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