Opinion Columns & Blogs

Craig Volland and Ellie Skokan: Flint Hills plan is a smoke screen

In 2003 and then again in 2009 and 2010, rangeland burning in the Flint Hills caused exceedances of the ozone smog air-quality standard at monitors in Wichita, Kansas City and/or Topeka.

In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency rejected a request by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to exempt these events from enforcement because the state had not developed a smoke management plan.

So the whole purpose of the proceedings described in a recent commentary by EPA and state leaders was to have something to point to the next time there is a bad air event caused by the burning of large areas of the Flint Hills within a few days ("Smoke plan historic," Dec. 19 Opinion). The true test will come later, when EPA must decide how to justify this burning as an exceptional event unlikely to recur even though it is obvious that it probably will.

EPA rules may allow for such semantic sleight of hand if the burning is done to achieve a natural resource benefit. Thus, an underlying premise of the new Flint Hills smoke management plan is that the current burning regime is necessary to preserve the tallgrass prairie.

The problem is that the current burning regime is really designed to maximize beef production. The more intensive of the burning and stocking practices are causing a decline in the populations of the greater prairie chicken and other grassland birds. The committee specifically declined to confront this problem and did not address current burning and stocking practices in a meaningful way.

Ozone smog imposes serious health consequences on vulnerable people downwind. Ozone aggravates allergies, asthma and emphysema and impairs overall lung function, especially in children, older adults and people who are active outdoors.

The plan requires authorities to issue health advisories to warn people of impending air pollution from the burning, but nowhere does it discuss how they are supposed to defend themselves from it.

Though the plan goes into considerable detail about impact on Wichita and Kansas City, which have ozone monitors, it doesn't say much about the effects of smoke on those in the more immediate vicinity of the Flint Hills, other than to call for more study. Implementation of that element of the plan is crucial.

The Sierra Club is not opposed to ecologically sound rangeland burning practices. For example, patch burning on a three-year rotation creates a more natural habitat for birds while achieving cattle weight gains comparable to existing practices.

However, the smoke management plan, as currently written, is not about preserving the prairie ecology and is unlikely to provide adequate protection for the public health.