Kansas prairie burns are necessary, but smoke is problematic

Clenton Owensby, a professor at Kansas State University, lights a pasture fire just south of Manhattan on Tuesday. The EPA may change regulations on range burning due to ozone issues in nearby urban areas due to the smoke from the fires. Owensby is considered an expert on pasture burning and range management issues. (April 27, 2010)
Clenton Owensby, a professor at Kansas State University, lights a pasture fire just south of Manhattan on Tuesday. The EPA may change regulations on range burning due to ozone issues in nearby urban areas due to the smoke from the fires. Owensby is considered an expert on pasture burning and range management issues. (April 27, 2010) The Wichita Eagle

Smoke from this year's spring burning of the Flint Hills prairie drifted all the way to Washington, D.C., according to satellite images. Perhaps not great timing. The lofty drift came as Kansas asks Congress to exempt landowners and local governments from federal air quality standards during the burning of the tallgrass prairie.

The annual burn drove the Wichita area's ozone levels over federal air pollution limits twice last year and once this year. More stringent Environmental Protection Agency standards are on the horizon, setting the stage for more violations. If that happens, businesses and residents in a four-county Wichita area could be asked to make changes that could cost $10 million a year for a decade.

A mix of economic, health and prairie preservation concerns are driving a call to action. The goal: Keep prairie burning, but in a way that lessens the smoke's impact on air quality standards and health.

A piece of that is asking for Congress' help.

In March, the state Legislature passed a resolution urging Congress to exempt Flint Hills smoke from the EPA's requirements. Last month, U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Hays, introduced a bill making largely the same request.

"Now, I don't know how far that thing will make it," said Mike Holder, a Kansas State University extension agent in tallgrass-prairie-rich Chase County. "Most of the congressmen won't understand."

At the same time, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment is responding to the EPA's request to draw up a plan to manage the smoke, including ways to reduce it.

The frequency of the burns is a hot topic, but no one is talking about banning them entirely. Burning is necessary to maintain the prairie.

"One of our first messages to ranchers is we're not out to ban burns," said Josh Tapp, chief of air planning and development for the EPA's Region 7 office in Kansas City. "We want to work with you to minimize the problem.

Burning is necessary

Deliberate burning in the Flint Hills has been going on for nearly 150 years, according to Clenton Owensby, a longtime KSU professor of range management.

Without burning, Owensby said, the Flint Hills would become a woodland in 30 to 40 years. Burning not only keeps scrub cedar and other woody invaders out, it enhances the nutritional value of the native grasses.

Burning removes the surface litter, allowing the soil to be warmed by the sun. The increased soil temperature causes nutrients to be released at a faster rate. That then causes the grass to consume greater amounts of nitrogen and other elements, which increases the forage's quality, Owensby said.

Owensby said 50 years of data shows that cattle that graze on burned pasture gain an average of 32 pounds a year more each than cattle that graze on unburned pasture.

"That can be the difference between profit and loss," he said.

Truckloads of cattle are hauled into the Flint Hills to be fattened up on leased pasture. The area's ranchers gain from renting out those pastures as well as seeing their own cattle add weight.

About 2 million of the 4.5 million acres in the Flint Hills are burned each year. An estimated half-million yearlings graze in the Flint Hills each year, according to the Kansas Livestock Association.

The extra weight gained for cattle on burned pastures in the Flint Hills increases profits $30 million annually, Holder said.

Stakeholders meet

Last month, all the stakeholders — agriculture groups, ranchers, EPA and other federal representatives and city and state officials — met in Newton to start talking about what KDHE's plan to manage the smoke should include.

"We want to make sure everyone is at the table," said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, who chairs the Senate's Natural Resources Committee. "It's about understanding and working together, so we can continue to have a healthy economy as well as a healthy environment."

Another meeting is expected in July in Emporia. Tom Gross, KDHE's section chief for air monitoring and planning, said he hopes to have a plan by next year's burning season.

The plan doesn't require the EPA's approval, but the agency's Tapp said, "We'll be supporting Kansas in writing it. The best ideas are going to come from Kansas and not the EPA."

Burn frequency

Frequency of burns is a significant issue.

The Sierra Club called for burning every three years in testimony before the Senate's Natural Resources Committee in Topeka earlier this year.

Those involved with range management vary on how often the prairie needs to be burned.

K-State's Owensby, who has spent 46 years studying the Flint Hills prairie and the cattle that graze upon it, said burning must be done annually.

"If you burn it once every three or four years, woody species will increase at an even more rapid rate than if you didn't do it for 20 years," he said.

Walter Fick, assistant agronomy professor at K-State and a research and extension range management specialist said, "It depends on where you start from. If you don't have a woody plant problem right now, burning every other year is frequent enough.

"If you have a brush problem now, then you need to burn two to three years in a row to set those (woody) plants back."

But as far as the grazing, cattle gain that extra weight only during years of burning, Fick said.

Another approach is called patch burning.

A pasture is divided into thirds, and one-third is burned each year. Cattle are then grazed on that burned area. The method was largely established to enhance wildlife habitat.

The process has supporters and doubters. But those involved with its development say it was never meant to be part of a smoke management plan and there's no data to support that it does reduce smoke.

Timing of burning

Another idea for managing smoke is simpler: Make those who burn aware of the best time to do so. KSU conducts seminars throughout the state and information is available online at weather.gov. The website has a tab for "fire weather," with basic forecasts for the best time to burn and reduce ozone problems.

Rangeland grasses must be burned in April to get maximum results for grazing cattle, Owensby said.

And only about a fourth of April days are suitable for burning because of weather conditions.

Temperatures need to be between 50 and 80 degrees, winds between 5 and 15 mph and in desirable directions and the humidity between 40 and 70 percent, Fick said.

Prairie preservation

Only 4 percent of North America's presettlement tallgrass prairie is still around, and 80 percent of it is in Kansas.

If nothing else, there is plenty of passion about preserving that prairie.

"We do want to protect our precious grassland," said Kay Johnson, environmental initiatives manager for Wichita, but she said the issue is also about health.

"If (ozone pollution) spikes, we're having health impacts," she said. "We're interested in working with the farmers and ranchers for an equitable solution."

Holder, the Chase County extension agent, pointed back to exempting the Flint Hills smoke from EPA rules as the solution.

"Wichita shouldn't be punished because smoke from our burning causes them to have a violation," he said. "At the same time, ranchers should not be punished by restricting burning because it causes an ozone problem in Wichita.

"Burning is not an option. It's a necessity. If we don't do it, we lose the prairie."

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