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Prairie fires serve important purpose

From the deadly San Francisco fire of 1906 to blazes that consumed millions of acres of land throughout the western United States in the summer of 2002, fires carry with them negative connotations of death and destruction.

By Jeff Caldwell

 

 

Fire on the prairie
Photo by Dave Hartnett, Konza Prairie Biological Station.

 

Such is not the case with fires on the grasslands of the Konza Prairie Biological Station. Burning these areas performs a function vital to the maintenance of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.

"A lot of people who are advocates for environmental conservation in other areas have this naive notion that if you want to preserve and protect, you simply put a fence around it and leave it alone," said David Hartnett, Kansas State University biology professor and director of the Konza Prairie Biological Station. "If you do that with a tallgrass prairie like Konza, you will basically destroy it."

The origins of the practice of annually burning the tallgrass species in the Flint Hills, including Konza Prairie, are rooted in the settlement of the frontier area by settlers from the East Coast and enterprising cattlemen from Texas and Mexico.

"In the 1850s, the goal of the spring burning was to burn off the prairie," said Donald W. Kaufman, K-State biology professor. "When this was done, the settlers found they could get all this new growth that was nutritious for the cattle they brought up from Texas."

Kaufman said the benefits of burning eventually became clear to settlers of the area. By periodically performing this duty, they kept the prairie free of trees and other woody vegetation, which hindered both travel and cattle grazing. "The aftermath of the cattle grazing was that people who burned regularly kept the woody vegetation out," Kaufman said.

Kaufman said this practice of annually burning the tallgrass prairies of the Flint Hills, including Konza Prairie, in addition to performing a vital function, has become widely accepted as part of life. "There's no place like this where fire is such a part of the culture," he said.

Now, more than a century after settlers learned the benefits of periodically burning the tallgrass prairies, K-State researchers continue to investigate the benefits of this process. Overall, they have found that the fires affect nearly every species of living thing on the Konza Prairie.

"The prairie has got to be actively managed," Hartnett said. "It's got to be grazed and burned regularly. If you take away those natural processes, it will disappear."

Kaufman, who specializes in mammalogy in his teaching and research at K-State, has performed a long-term longitudinal study on the small mammal populations, particularly the effects upon them of the burning of the tallgrass prairie. In its 20th year, the study has yielded results that, according to Kaufman, are important to the establishment of national parks or preserves in the future.

In addition to the study of animal life on Konza, plant life has also been the subject of recent research. Charles W. Rice, K-State agronomy professor, has been at the forefront of this effort. His research focus has been the effects of the fire upon the exchange of carbon and nitrogen between the soil and the plants, particularly tall grass species.

By learning more about "carbon sequestration," Rice said a problem of global proportions could be alleviated. By burning, the amount of carbon absorbed by plants is increased, and as a result, can compensate for the dangers of global warming.

"It is important to understand that this burning does not kill the grass plants, and it actually allows for better growth," Rice said.

Hartnett emphasized the importance of the fires to the livelihood of the entire ecosystem. "We know historically that fire is the most important natural process and absolutely essential to maintaining the prairie," he said. "We have to maintain this continual annual burning program to maintain part of the stewardship of the land and maintenance of the prairie."

June 2002