The exemption is needed because the Environmental Protection Agency is requiring something impossible — a plan which would lay out the time, location, and frequency of the burns which are required to keep the prairie healthy and intact. Given the variability of weather in Kansas, these three things are simply impossible to predict in an area that stretches hundreds of miles from northeast Kansas to northeast Oklahoma.
To be fair, the EPA is asking for the burn plan in order to grant an exemption to the Clean Air Act under current law:
“According to EPA you have to have a smoke management plan,” Moran said. “You can’t do that because you can’t predict the weather.”
Every May in the Flint Hills the scene is repeated — cattle trucks pull up to isolated loading gates and unload thousands of steers which have wintered over in Texas and Mexico to be fattened before heading to slaughter. The cattle will spend 90 days on the last remaining tall-grass prairie in the world, where they will gain as much as 2.5 pounds a day.
Cowboys will then mount up on horseback — as their fathers and grandfathers have done for time out of living memory — to gather those cattle up and send them to packing plants in western Kansas and Oklahoma.
It’s a lifestyle which has endured for more than 150 years, but which is now in jeopardy thanks to the EPA and Congress.
In order for the waist-high bluestem grass to grow, each year in April the ranchers must burn the prairie. This helps to eliminate invasive species like the Eastern Red Cedar and other, shorter grasses which now hold sway in the western part of the state. It also burns off the dead grass from the year before.
This yearly burn is not only natural; it is required in order to maintain the highly fragile ecosystem of the tall-grass prairie. Only 4 percent of it remains these days, nearly 80 percent of that in Kansas.