K-State researchers continue to look at the best ways to burn native grasslands to help cattle producers achieve their management goals. In 2011, approximately 1 million head of cattle added about $30 million to the Kansas economy.
PHOTO: Chase County agent Mike Holder (left) looks at grazing land with sheriff Rich Dorneker, whose office helped manage the county's smoke management plan.
Evaluating the First Year of the Smoke Management Plan
Kansas has taken an important first step toward resolving a nearly decade-long discussion between urban and rural residents over smoke from prairie fires.
The Kansas Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan was released by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) in December 2010 to help guide prescribed burning on the state’s prairie land.
In 2003, KDHE reported that smoke from annual fires — to control woody plants in grassland and maintain the ecosystem for wildlife — was contributing to poor air quality in Kansas City and other areas to the east.
The plan "may have seemed to come together quickly," said Tom Gross, chief for the Bureau of Air and Radiation at KDHE, "but there was a lot of lead-up time prior to its release last year."
In fact, 13 state and local organizations were involved in writing and implementing the plan, according to the team’s website www.ksfire.org
The plan debuted in spring 2011, encouraging land managers to monitor weather forecasts — particularly wind speed and direction — when planning an annual burn. Officials also implemented restrictions on open burning during April in Johnson, Wyandotte, and Sedgwick counties as well as the Flint Hills region.
"I think we made a difference; we certainly raised awareness about prescribed burning," said Jeff Davidson, Greenwood County agriculture and natural resources agent. "I was pleased with the number of phone calls I got from people looking at the website and wanting to do things right."
About two-thirds of the country's remaining tallgrass prairie is in the Flint Hills. Because of that, K-State researchers continue to look at the best ways to burn native grasslands to help producers achieve their management objectives. In addition to best practices for controlling the flow of smoke to populated areas, they are helping to preserve historically significant grasslands.
They also know that projects like the smoke management plan take years of research to fully realize their effects. For example, the Konza Prairie Long Term Ecological Research project, funded by the National Science Foundation and a key K-State initiative to preserve grasslands worldwide, is in its 31st year.
The annual burns knock out invasive woody plants and other growth that interfere with maintaining healthy grasslands for grazing cattle.
"Burning the prairie is critical in my business; it just basically has to be done," said rancher Jack Lindamood, who manages nearly 350 head of cattle in Greenwood County.
In nearby Chase County, about 300,000 acres are burned each year. Agent Mike Holder says that area has the "cleanest grasslands in the Flint Hills.
"It’s that way because of grazing and burning and the fact that producers follow those two practices correctly," he said. "We’ve got a big part of the ecosystem. If we don't burn it, we lose the ecosystem."
The Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan was not without hitches in 2011. Air quality monitors in urban areas exceeded national air quality standards on four days during April, the peak burning season.
"An awful lot of that is related to how many good weather days we had for burning last year," said KDHE’s Gross. "When you have a smaller number of those days — as was the case in Kansas last spring — you are probably going to have more exceedances."