Flint Hills Burning Proposed for Clean Air Act Exemption
By Craig Volland
The wholesale annual burning of rangeland in the Flint Hills is causing exceedances of the ozone smog air quality standard in the major urban areas of Kansas. This is becoming an even more serious problem because the USEPA is proposing to lower the ozone air quality standard this year. Rather than address the problem at its source, the Kansas legislature passed a resolution requesting that Congress grant Flint Hills ranchers an exemption to the US Clean Air Act. On April 22, Rep. Jerry Moran of the 1st Kansas Congressional District introduced a bill in Congress, HR 5118, to achieve this purpose (click here for HR 5118).
Let’s have the facts, please. This bill is as disingenuous in its language as it is misguided in its purpose. This article seeks to correct the misinformation found in the six “findings” in HR 5118. In each case the proffered “finding’ is corrected or clarified by the Sierra Club in bold italics.
- The Flint Hills Region of Kansas and Oklahoma contains the world’s largest share of the remaining tallgrass prairie, and is the only place where that habitat is in landscape proportions. Only 4 percent of North America’s pre-settlement tallgrass prairie survives to this day, and 80 percent is located in Kansas.
True. Almost all of the original tall grass prairie & associated habitat in the US disappeared because of intensive agriculture development. Vast areas were plowed up. The Flint Hills is the last remaining relatively “intact” tall grass prairie because it was not suitable for row crops. It was used for livestock, instead. That was fine until about 1980 when many ranchers greatly intensified the frequency of grass burning and/or increased the density of cattle grazing. These practices are now wiping out grassland bird habitat and, in essence, beginning a new round of destruction of the tall grass prairie.
- The Flint Hills Region is also home to certain declining avian species such as the greater prairie chicken and Henslow’s sparrow that cannot continue to exist without large expanses of native tallgrass prairie in an original state. Further, it is a significant corridor for migrating shorebirds such as the American golden plover, the buff-breasted sand-piper, and the upland sandpiper.
Yes, several species are declining because of habitat fragmentation, excessive (annual) range burning practices, and more intensive grazing pressure. Many ranchers employ a range management practice called Intensive Early Stocking. That’s when, in early spring of each year, entire ranches in the Flint Hills are burned at the same time so grassland birds like the Greater Prairie Chicken can find no place to successfully breed.
- Beginning in the mid-19th century, cattlemen understood that the richness of the Flint Hills grasses depended on a good spring burn--something they learned from the Native Americans. Fire still thrives in the Flint Hills because the ranchers, and others using the land, know that the natural ecosystem depends on fire.
19th century cattlemen may have copied the Native Americans, but today’s ranchers have gone far beyond that. There is no precedent for the wholesale annual burning of the Flint Hills, and it is certainly not a tradition to be revered. See also the answer to finding # 2 above.
- Ranchers, landowners, and conservation groups use prescribed burns to mimic the seasonal fires that have shaped the tallgrass prairie for thousands of years. Areas not burned for several years develop mature grasses and thicker, thatch-like vegetation, which habitat is preferred by invasive species.
Substantially false. Current burning methods throughout the Flint Hills do not mimic natural burning or traditional rotational burning techniques. Only a few ranchers and conservation groups are using the rotational “patch” or “mosaic” burning technique that protects wildlife while at the same time preventing invasive plant species.
- The Flint Hills Region is one of the few places in the United States where the prevailing agricultural system works essentially in tandem with an ancestral native ecosystem, preserving most of its complexity and the dynamic processes that helped shape it.
Completely false. Ranching today in most of the Flint Hills is a broad-scale industrial activity that is damaging on many levels. Scientists agree that it is responsible for the decline of the Greater Prairie Chicken and other grassland birds. This excessive burning and stocking system is so vast that it has caused exceedances of the ozone air quality standard at monitors in Kansas City, Wichita and/or Topeka in three of the past eight years. It is estimated that some 70% of the Flint Hills is owned by outside investors.
- Due to the uniqueness of the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie and the historic manner in which the tallgrass prairie has been managed by fire, existing prescribed burn practices should be allowed to continue and ambient air data resulting from fires used to manage the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie should be not be included in determinations of compliance with the Clean Air Act.
Absurd. It is completely unnecessary to exempt current burning practices in the Flint Hills from the Clean Air Act. The USEPA and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment are currently working with all stake-holders on a Smoke Management Plan to mitigate the problem. The simple answer is for Flint Hills Ranchers to switch to alternate burning practices. HR 5118 is special interest politics at its worst.
The Kansas Chapter has sent a letter (click here for letter) of objection to Rep. Henry Waxman, Chairman, House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose committee will be handling this bill. We will be closely tracking this issue and will post facts that will correct misinformation from Kansas livestock interests and their political supporters.
Please write or call the Chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, Mr. Henry A. Waxman’s office and call your Representative in Congress to tell them that you are tired of breathing pollution every spring from the wholesale burning of the Flint Hills just so ranchers and their investors can make a few extra bucks off their beef at the feedlot gate. The USEPA and KDHE are already working on a smoke management plan to help with this problem, so there is no need for Congress to intervene.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman
Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee
2125 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D. C. 20515