Wednesday, March 31, 2010
K-STATE EXPERT SAYS DISCUSSION OF BANNING PRAIRIE FIRES THREATENS ECOLOGY OF TALLGRASS PRAIRIE
MANHATTAN -- What may look like a looming cloud of smoke and an eerie orange hue on the horizon is actually a rejuvenating tool used by land managers and a fairly common scene in the Flint Hills during the spring months. But according to a Kansas State University biologist, growing concerns about air quality in urban areas may hinder more than a century's worth of tradition in the rural Kansas prairie.
"There's been some talk about the possibility of banning burning or limiting the amount of burning in the Flint Hills due to the amount of smoke that's going into the cities, because it puts the cities over their ozone alert level," said K-State's John Briggs, director of the Konza Prairie Biological Station.
Konza Prairie, jointly owned by K-State and The Nature Conservancy, and managed by K-State's Division of Biology, encompasses more than 8,600 acres of native tallgrass prairie with a three-fold mission dedicated to long-term ecological research, education and prairie conservation.
"Burning tallgrass prairie is necessary. It is the most cost-effective way to manage grasslands in this area," Briggs said. "These are hilly, rocky areas so mowing is not an option. Plus, this is a fire-dependent system. It evolved with fire over time since the last glaciation, either by natural fire or fire lit and created by humans."
Briggs not only has the responsibility of managing Konza Prairie's ecosystem as a tallgrass prairie preserve but also facilitating ecological research. The prairie is segmented into various large research watersheds, which are sections of land that are defined by the natural flow of water off the terrain. Each watershed is burned at a different frequency. Some watersheds are burned annually, while other watersheds are burned only every 20 years. The difference between the two is very visually striking after a few years, Briggs said.
"Without frequent fires, woody plants, such as cedar trees and dogwood, will become established," he said. "Over time, the prairie can be converted from an ecosystem that is dominated by grasses to a forest-like system that is co-dominated by grasses and woody plants. This is apparent by looking at our 20-year burn watersheds. Without drastic measures such as the mechanical removal of shrubs, it is unlikely that reintroducing fire and grazing regimes will be sufficient to restore historic grass dominance once woody plants have been established."
Briggs said people should be concerned about air pollution, and that he and other K-State scientists are working with individuals at the Environmental Protection Agency and various state and county agencies to come up with a solution, using some of the research data collected from Konza.
"Our 16-year data set shows if you burn early in the spring or even in the winter, you're not going to destroy the tallgrass prairie," Briggs said. "There is no difference if you're burning in February, March or April with regard to production of the warm season grasses."
Currently, most ranchers try to burn around the third week of April, thus creating a large amount of smoke within a small time frame, he said. Encouraging land managers to spread the burning out over a period of several months could cut down on the amount of smoke in the atmosphere at one time and reduce the potential for ozone production in urban centers.
"People also have to recognize that once in a while there may be only one or two weekends where burning is possible because the weather has to cooperate -- we have to have tolerance for that," Briggs said. "If we were prevented from burning altogether it would devastate our research program and make it more difficult to manage and conserve remaining areas of tallgrass prairie."
Evidence of the fact that Kansans understand and appreciate the beauty of the tallgrass prairie is shown by the Konza Prairie Biological Station recently being named one of the Eight Geographical Wonders of Kansas by the Kansas Sampler Foundation.
Konza was given this award because it is an internationally recognized research site for tallgrass prairie ecology and because its six miles of trails offer the public an excellent way to experience the Kansas prairie, said Valerie Wright, education director for the Konza Environmental Education Program. Public voting for the award took place during a period of six weeks, totaling more than 12,400 votes, and narrowing the candidate sites down from 24 throughout the state.
"The award will help more people better understand what the Konza Prairie Biological Station is," Wright said. "We are different than other preservation sites because all the information that we send out explains that it's a research site, as opposed to the other seven geographical wonders in Kansas, which are more historical or more open to the public than we are."
"The Konza Prairie Biological Station is approaching its 40th year and some of our experiments have been in place for that length of time," Briggs said. "We're hoping it'll continue for the next 30, 50 or 100 years, and I think that's what really makes the Konza unique."
More information on Konza Prairie Biological Station research, hiking trails and education program is available at http://kpbs.konza.ksu.edu or by calling 785-587-0441.