Plan must cut smoke

Public officials call it a historic plan to support public health, ecosystems and agricultural communities. Environmentalists call it a smoke screen. The true measure of the new Flint Hills smoke management program will come with its implementation and results. It actually needs to manage and mitigate the smoke.

In recent years, Kansans have come to appreciate that the controlled annual burns in the Flint Hills seriously affect air quality as they reduce woody growth and renew the land for grazing.

The good-faith effort to bring stakeholders to the table and emphasize voluntary measures seemed like a fine approach last spring. The partnership included not only the Environmental Protection Agency and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment but also Kansas State University, the Kansas Livestock Association, the Kansas Farm Bureau, state lawmakers, ranchers, local governments and conservation groups. In addition to staving off costly penalties under new federal ozone standards expected next summer, the goals included balancing property rights and livestock production with competing and sometimes conflicting priorities such as clean air, unobstructed highways and a healthy tallgrass prairie ecosystem.

The assets of the plan that emerged earlier this month include the pilot program proposed for Chase and Greenwood counties, which could lead to more tailored burning. The plan wisely calls for giving Kansans more notice of planned burns and information about the health implications of the smoke. And it should lead to more data collection and air-quality monitoring.

But it was disappointing to see the plan mostly dismiss patch burning — when a third of a pasture is burned and used for grazing on an annually rotating basis — as experimental and unproved. Kansas State University researchers have found “very, very similar” weight gains for cattle whether they graze on land that has been the site of patch or full burning, and the Sierra Club promotes it as a way not only to cut down on smoke but to safeguard more habitat for the greater prairie chicken and other grassland birds whose Flint Hills populations are declining. Patch burning deserves more consideration as a strategy going forward.

Rather than be seen as the final answer, the smoke management plan is best viewed as a “working document,” as suggested by state Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, who co-chaired the committee that crafted the program.

If the plan leads to more selective burning and better-quality air this April and beyond, it will have proved the power of the collaborative, voluntary approach. If the program makes little or no difference, Kansans should seek new ways to truly manage the smoke — or not be surprised when the federal government steps in.