Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Burn, You Must

Somewhere in the midst of Winter, I've begun to think of Spring, and thoughts of Spring here on the prairie lead to plans for burning of the prairie, if not annually, at least on a periodic basis.  Around this same time, in preparation for the clouds of eastward-blown smoke, regional newspapers begin to spew forth various editorials for and against the prairie burning, with "pro" articles highlighting the benefits to the local environment (i.e. the immediate prairie) and "con" editorials bemoaning the detrimental effects for air quality in the eastern cities.  Take note here that both arguments are based on ecologically-principled arguments.  Particularly, in the last few years the EPA has begun to regulate the prairie burning with the excuse that it raises the ozone levels in Kansas City (already high from their human infestations) to unacceptable levels.

But, echoing Yoda, if prairie is to exist, burn you must.

So, ProfessorRoush, surely you exaggerate?  No, I'm afraid I don't.  While driving down the road this weekend, I took just a few pictures to illustrate the point.  In anticipation of the gnashing of teeth and wails about air quality loss, I'd like to make sure all my readers understand what will result from a complete ban on burning of the prairies.   If you don't burn the prairie, after three years or so, you get a view that looks like this:

 I've referred before to the colonization of the unburned prairie by Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana).  Red Cedars are dense, slow-growing evergreens that are native to the MidWest and they are quite simply fatal for the prairie grasses and forbs who cannot exist at their dry, sunless feet.  Underneath a stand of cedar trees in the Flint Hills is a barren ecosystem; bare, arid dirt without the slightest hint of herbaceous plant or moss.  Perhaps there will be a scattering of needles, which themselves raise the pH of the soil, making it more alkaline and the nutrients less available for plants.  The Red Cedar has been found to reduce the nitrogen available in prairie soils and, more importantly for those who hope to store excess CO2 from industrialization as soil-bound carbon, have also been found to reduce the carbon content of the soil, in contrast to the deep-rooted grasses that they outcompete.

In ten years without burning, it looks like this, an impenetrable thicket of stiff, worthless weed trees.

If these were California Redwoods, beautiful and pristine, or some useful tree species to man or animals, I might feel differently.  But even when they're allowed to grow with plenty of space around them, Red Cedars often aren't very pretty or useful.  The lower branches get singed by burns or die off one by one, and sometimes you're just left with a naked trunk and branches, bleached white by the sun, which stand alone for decades before the rot-resistant wood succumbs to wind or weather.  And then it lies on the ground for another decade unless removed by man.   

So please remember, when you're complaining that the air is a little hazy or smells a little burnt this April, there really is no alternative to burning if we want to keep a prairie.


  1. I'm right there with you Prof. The take over of Red Cedars in much of Oklahoma has caused many problems, not the lease of which being increased fire danger. Our prairie lands would benefit from burns but Oklahoma's ecosystem has become much more wooded in the past century. Not just Cedars but all trees. Areas where buffalo and fire kept tree down are looking more like Arkansas. Nothing wrong with Arkansas it is just different from the prairies that used to be here.

  2. We've burned 3 times since moving here in 2007 - an adrenaline rush, if ever there was one - and it really is amazing how much difference it makes in the health of the grassland.

  3. I patterned my shorts after a burned prairie by the way.


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