Opinion Columns & Blogs

Balance prairie burning, air quality

It's spring in Kansas and smoke is in the air. Landowners are burning their pastures as they have done for decades. The pollutants from those burns — one of the most notable of which is ozone — foul the air that most Kansans breathe.

As regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, I have a duty to carry out the laws enacted by Congress. But solving the ozone problem has important state and local components.

It is important to balance the management of tallgrass prairies and the health impacts of prairie burning. To achieve that balance requires enlisting both rural and urban Kansans in a common cause: to manage our actions, on rural ranches and suburban freeways, so as to keep improving our air quality by attaining mandatory national clean-air goals.

The problem with ozone is that all of our actions in Kansas contribute to its formation and intensification; none of us can ignore responsibility. Ozone especially affects the state's two biggest metropolitan areas, Wichita and Kansas City. But smaller communities around the Flint Hills also could be affected.

The costs of this wider, more intensive regulatory focus will be borne by both urban and rural Kansans. But the reward for sharing these costs is measured in lives saved and brightened, investment opportunities preserved, and economic prosperity enhanced.

Standards enforced under the Clean Air Act are cost-effective. Over the 10-year period from 1996 through 2006, the Office of Management and Budget calculated that Americans enjoyed about $10 of health benefits for every $1 spent on implementation and compliance.

I am new in this position, but I submit there are principles that should guide our path forward.

At the informal work groups that began last winter, the Prescribed Fire Council's members have stressed that pasture burning is a management tool, not a recreational pastime. Land managers, informed by the best work done by our range and atmospheric scientists, always should strive to handle that tool of burning to both improve the land and respect their neighbors' rights.

Creating an effective smoke-management program that provides coordination, notification, mitigation and education is the way to accomplish this purpose. Our air-quality and legal staff has been, and will continue to be, actively involved with the public health managers of Wichita and Sedgwick County, ranch owners, stock raisers, local and state governments, and the nearly 2 million Kansans whose economic livelihood and family health depend on the way we reconcile national air-quality goals and duties with private economic prosperity and responsibility.