TOPEKA (AP) –– Burning the range on the Flint Hills is a time-honored tradition for ranchers, who say the spring fires revitalize pastures and protect the prairie.
But the smoke from those millions of burned acres wafts over Kansas City, worsening its air quality and making an already bad ozone problem worse, experts say.
Lawmakers in Kansas want to figure out a way to balance the needs of the ranchers with the health and environment of the metropolitan area –– before federal environmental regulators step in with rules no one would like.
“We have an ecosystem like no other in the world,” said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, which reviewed the problem Friday. “I think most people understand that burning is necessary. But they (ranchers) want to be good neighbors.”
Kansas City’s ozone problems are bad enough that the federal government could step in with added air-quality regulations. Ozone pollution is typically worse during the summer when warmer temperatures speed the creation of ozone in the atmosphere. But the area’s air-quality sensors show that ozone also spikes after large burns on the prairie.
The state is looking at creating a smoke management plan to suggest the best times for burning. Currently, burning is concentrated in a small window of time each spring. Limiting the size of fires by starting the burn season earlier, or prohibiting burning on days when high winds blow east, could reduce the effect on the metropolitan area.
“I’m optimistic that something can be done,” said Cindy Kemper, director of the Johnson County Environmental Department. “The devil’s in the details, though. It won’t be easy because you’re changing a behavior that’s rooted in generations of tradition.”
Air quality is not the only concern. The Audubon Society of Kansas worries that widespread burning limits the habitat of the threatened greater prairie chicken. The group would like to see ranchers burn alternate portions of their land on a three-year rotation.
Barb Downey says her family raises cattle in Riley and Wabaunsee counties and typically burns rangeland for about seven days each spring, usually within a two-week window. The fires prevent the growth of trees and rejuvenate grasses by returning nutrients to the soil. The robust grass makes for robust cattle.
Time and weather restrict when the burning occurs. Burn too early and you can cause soil erosion; do it too late and the grass and woody plants are already too high. Rain is another hindrance.
“We’ve got to burn as much as we can as fast as we can,” Downey said. That means “that you get a really good day and everybody is out there by necessity lighting everything they can.”
A big concern for ranchers in the Flint Hills is that the Environmental Protection Agency will include them in any new environmental rules for Kansas City. McGinn introduced legislation Friday that would ask the federal government to grant the Flint Hills an exemption.
In previous years, ranchers had opposed efforts to curb rangeland burning. The fact that they are now willing to discuss a compromise is a step in the right direction, said Rep. Tom Moxley, a Council Grove Republican and a lifelong rancher.
“I’m convinced a workable solution can be developed,” Moxley said. “Traditions die hard, so some degree of patience will be required by all parties.”
The Senate Natural Resources Committee will continue its work on the issue on Feb. 4.