What have I gotten myself into? I’m laying down flat on my back in my tent, not because I’m sleeping but because the tent is literally being flattened nearly to my face by the fierce wind as it blasts incessantly across the tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills of Kansas. I’ve been in high wind situations before, particularly in Alaska, but this time the wind felt different. It was enveloping, feeling like it was a living, breathing being. It was eerie being all alone with this wind creature as it howled through the night.
I was in the Flint Hills to photograph the springtime burning of the prairie. Specifically, I was camped at the Flying W Ranch in Chase County Kansas at what was described as the center of action for the Flying W’s “Flames in the Flint Hills,” an agritourism event. Visitors to the ranch can participate in the prescribed burning of the prairie. That event was 24 hours away, and given the wind and heavy rain; I was having doubts about it actually taking place as I slowly fell asleep.
Cattle ranchers and land managers intentionally burn the prairie to mimic the natural wildfires caused by lightning strikes as a way to improve cattle forage. While the burning might appear on the surface to be destructive, fires cause the tallgrass prairie to regenerate itself. It serves as a way to manage vegetation, in particular weeds, woody vegetation, and invasive species while promoting new growth in the process. I was told that without this burning, the prairie would eventually end up looking like the forested hills of the Ozarks. That hasn’t happened in the Flint Hills. The soil in the Flint Hills is incredibly rocky and is the reason the land has never been turned into farmland for crops. That said, less than four percent of the original 140 million acres of tallgrass prairie remains in North America making it one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet. Most of the remaining tallgrass prairie is in the Flint Hills in Kansas.
The prairie grassland is burned when the soil is moist but grasses are dry. This allows the deep roots of the grasses to survive and the burned grasses on the soil surface return as nutrients to the soil. These nutrients allow for the rapid growth of new grass. After approximately two weeks of burning, new grass emerges. The new grass is prized by cattle ranchers and their cattle; so rich in nutrients a steer can gain almost two pounds a day.
The controlled burning, or as some like to say prescribed burning, since any wildfire can’t be totally “controlled,” isn’t without controversy. Burning huge tracks of land creates huge plumes of smoke — smoke that can cause air quality problems in counties, and even states away. In particular, it is problematic for large cities like Kansas City and Wichita as the smoke adds to their already polluted air.
Another issue is that recent studies have shown that the intentional burning combined with widespread grazing has caused the populations of grassland birds to decrease substantially. Burning every spring eliminates the tallgrass that hides the nests of grassland birds, like the dickcissel, from egg-eating predators like raccoons.
For both issues, land managers are working with national and state government agencies to lessen the impact of burning. In the case of pollution, land mangers are burning pasture lands primarily in the spring, postponing other non-essential burning to other times of the year. To deal with the impact on wildlife, land managers and cattle ranchers are beginning to “patch burn” where one-third of their land is burned every year completing the cycle of burning all their land every three years. So far, the results appear to be promising.
The whole issue is a catch-22. If the prairie doesn’t burn (whether intentionally or naturally) the entire tallgrass prairie ecosystem will cease to exist. The challenge appears to be getting the right balance in the frequency of burning.
Morning greeted me with clear blue skies and bright sunshine. Having oversleep and missed sunrise by only minutes, I quickly made my way out into the dusty unmarked back roads of Chase County. The blackened earth and the smell of smoke make obvious the recent burn. It was also obvious that the prairie was rejuvenating itself and new grass shoots were popping up from the scorched earth. The prairie has been reborn.
The wind and the sun quickly dried off the grass and the planned burn at the Flying W Ranch went off as planned. Eager participants formed long lines across the prairie to light the grass with matches, once during the day, and once in the evening.
In both cases, the fire quickly started, and would race down the hillsides eventually dying out. The evening burn with its red line of flames signifying the leading edge of the fire reminded me of scenes of flowing lava from the Kilauea volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. To ensure that the fire stayed contained in the areas designated for burning, strips of grass were pre-burned and extinguished so the fire would stop upon reaching these areas that no longer had combustible material.
That was comforting to know as I lay in my tent tucked in my sleeping bag, looking out on the hillside next to me as the fire continued to crackle and burn.
ABOVE: Unidentified participants at the “Flames in the Flint Hills” observe the burning prairie at the Flying W Ranch near Clements, Kansas. This agritourism event allows ranch guests to take part in lighting the prescribed burns. Prairie grasses in the Kansas Flint Hills are intentionally burned by land mangers and cattle ranchers in the spring to prepare the land for cattle grazing and help maintain a healthy tallgrass prairie ecosystem. The burning is also an effective way of controlling invasive plants and trees. The prairie grassland is burned when the soil is moist but grasses are dry. This allows the deep roots of the grasses to survive and the burned grasses on the soil surface return as nutrients to the soil. These nutrients allow for the rapid growth of new grass. After approximately two weeks of burning, new grass emerges. Less than four percent of the original 140 million acres of tallgrass prairie remains in North America. Most of the remaining tallgrass prairie is in the Flint Hills in Kansas.
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