Equal parts stewardship, business and ritual, the controlled spring burns of the Kansas prairie command respect and even inspire awe. They are arguably God’s work, refreshing the ecosystem as they renew the land for grazing. When the Flint Hills turn smoky every spring, it seems like part of the natural order of things.
For some, though, it also can seem impossible to breathe. Burns have put Wichita’s air-pollution level over federal limits three times recently, stoking worries about the region’s ability to comply with the even stricter federal ozone limits ahead.
Unlike the Icelandic volcano, say, prairie burns are man-made and therefore can be managed — making their hazardous side effects subject to regulation, negotiation and change.
With the burns affecting the state’s ability to comply with tighter Environmental Protection Agency standards, the next steps must be collaborative and farsighted.
It isn’t reasonable to expect to get a pass on federal air-quality standards because of the seasonal burns, which was the aim of a resolution passed by the Legislature and a bill introduced in Congress by Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Hays.
So it’s good to know that the Kansas Department of Health and Environment is working with agriculture organizations, ranchers, and EPA and other public officials toward making some changes before next year’s burning begins. The next meeting is expected to be in Emporia in July.
Josh Tapp, chief of air planning and development for the EPA’s Region 7 office in Kansas City, is surely right in suggesting that “the best ideas are going to come from Kansas and not the EPA.” Nobody is suggesting that the burning end, which would allow woody growth to take over and spell the end of the tallgrass prairie as we know it.
But there appears to be room to debate how frequent the burning needs to be. Patch burning continues to sound promising — when a third of a pasture is burned and used for grazing each year, usually with an eye to improving wildlife habitat. A Kansas State University study has indicated that cattle weight gains are “very, very similar,” whether they’re grazed on pastures that have had patch burning or full burns. Perhaps there’s a way to ramp up research for next spring and beyond, to see whether data confirms what sounds like common sense.
Landowner rights run deep in Kansas, and especially in the Flint Hills. But at its worst, such as last year, prairie burning leads to warnings that children, older adults and people with asthma and other lung diseases limit how long they’re outside and how much they exert themselves there. Smoke-obstructed highways and burns that go out of control are public-safety issues as well. All of which makes prairie burns and their management a shared concern and responsibility.
— For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman