Friday, April 30, 2010
Spring brings fire to the plains of Kansas. Yes, there are the vibrant yellows, reds and oranges of spring flowers and budding trees, the colors that remind us of flames.
But we also see the smoke signals that drift into the Kansas skies from controlled burns on Kansas pasture lands.
We think of fire as a destructive thing, and it certainly can be. But it can also be a vehicle of rebirth.
On my recent stop at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve south of Council Grove, I could see the remnants of a prairie fire in the charred grasses and scorched branches.
But from the charred earth was green regrowth lifting toward a vibrant blue sky.
It seems counter intuitive. Why would fire - which seems such a destructive force - bring this new life?
Yet as ranchers light fires to clear the dead grass and small brush, it makes way for a new carpet of green just weeks later.
And the cycle of life begins again. The Flint Hills are part of the tallgrass prairie, which stretches from Canada to Texas. Ranchers have a saying: Take care of the grass and it will take care of you. Burning pastures has been part of caring for the prairie even back to the days of the Indians. It's an age-old partnership with cattle, birds, wildflowers and the grasslands.
The prescribed burning mimics the seasonal fires that have shaped the tallgrass prairie for hundreds of years. Burning also reduces the chances of destructive wildfires such as those in California and other states. The practice helps ranchers control invasive species, such as eastern red cedars, that squeeze out native grasses.
As I drove home on that Saturday afternoon two weeks ago, there was a haze in the air as ranchers burned. That haze can be controversial. Congressman Jerry Moran introduced legislation this month that would protect the ability of Flint Hills landowners to use prescribed fire as a tool to maintain the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.
The Environmental Protection Agency is attempting to regulate how and when landowners can burn in the Flint Hills by asking Kansas to develop a smoke management plan. During recent years, a narrow window for grassland burning caused heightened air quality readings in Wichita and Kansas City. HR 5118 would recognize the multiple benefits of prescribed fires by exempting landowners and local governments from EPA's enforcement of Clean Air Act standards if it involves smoke from pasture burning in the Flint Hills.
And it's not just a rite of spring in the Flint Hills. Though it's not on as grand a scale, there is prairie burning in other parts of Kansas, including here on the County Line. We don't do a lot of burning, but we did burn a couple of pastures this spring.
Unfortunately, I wasn't around to capture the images. So, I'm sharing something I found on Youtube. This is just a short video that shows scenery from the Flint Hill and some burning. If you want a longer version about the history of the practice of burning - even back to the Indians - go to www.youtube.com and type in Meditation 3 - Prairie Fire (Warning: It's over 7 minutes long but it's more comprehensive.)
I've given you a few glimpses of still photography of the Flint Hills. But if you can find a National Geographic issue featuring the photography of Jim Richardson, I would recommend it. Richardson, who has a photography studio in Lindsborg, has traveled all over the world taking photos for National Geographic. His images of the region are breathtaking.