Harmful Burning to Continue in the Flint Hills

Smoke Management Plan.  In November, the KDHE’s SMP Committee issued the first draft of its plan to resolve the problem of ozone-smog exceedances in eastern Kansas.  The good news is we got the committee to admit that most of the burning is occurring in prime greater prairie-chicken (GPC) habitat.  For this we applaud the extraordinary work of our volunteer analyst and computer jock, Duane Schrag.  Duane is also known for his insightful articles on the Kansas environment written while he was a reporter for the Salina Journal.

The bad news is that the committee is taking the position that burning to keep woody plant species at bay is more important than addressing the impacts of that same burning on grassland birds.  This is despite the fact that a US Fish and Wildlife Service program, which has “restored or enhanced” some 350,000 acres of Flint Hills prairie since 1992, primarily by removing invasive species, has not arrested the decline in the GPC population.  The problem is that widespread, annual burning of grass and overstocking of cattle remove the cover needed by the GPC to successfully breed.

The Plan has three major elements:

— A ban on “non-essential” (read non-agricultural) burning in April;

— Development of a real-time meteorological communications network to advise landowners of the best time to burn.   Compliance remains voluntary;

— Health advisories to warn the downwind public of bad air days from the burning.

In response to these health alerts Sierra Club members can hole up in their tightly sealed and weatherized homes; but it is not clear what everybody else is supposed to do.

The full text of our comment on the draft has been posted on our website (www.kansas.sierraclub.org) along with annotated bibliographies demonstrating the impacts of excessive burning and overgrazing on grassland birds and outlining alternative burning methods.

Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area.  Meanwhile the US Fish and Wildlife Service has issued their decision on the Environmental Assessment for the FHLCA.  They decided there was no problem with showering landowners with public funds up to one third of their land value while not requiring any changes in their land management practices.  USFWS has taken the position that placing any restrictions on burning and cattle stocking practices would discourage participation in the program.

There are many ranchers in the Flint Hills who care about wildlife, and some are using more benign burning techniques.  The latest research on patch burning, for example, indicates that there would be minimal losses in cattle weight gain compared to existing practices.  In any event, conservation easements are expressly designed to compensate landowners for any loss of earnings that might be caused by land use restrictions.

Strangely, USFWS responded to comments about damaging burning and stocking practices by saying that “the ranching culture” in the Flint Hills will provide “an appropriate fire and grazing regime for long-term sustainability.” Romantic notions are not a good substitute for specific plans to address inappropriate land management practices.  As presently designed the FHLCA is sadly misconceived and will likely result in a monumental waste of public funds.

By Craig Volland, Air Quality Chair

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