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Preserve an Ecosystem, or Preserve an EPA Rule?

Prescribed fires are necessary to preserve a prairie ecosystem, but the smoke causes regulatory problems for cities downwind. It's the EPA versus nature.

by
Patrick Richardson

Bio

May 14, 2010 - 12:00 am

Representative Jerry Moran (R-KS) recently introduced legislation in the House to require an exemption to the Clean Air Act for prescribed burns of the Flint Hills region of Kansas and Oklahoma.

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.

The problem, so far as EPA is concerned, is the smoke from these fires can travel for hundreds of miles and cause cities as far away as St. Louis to fail clean air act standards — particularly in years where the burning season is condensed because of factors such as rain and wind. This has happened three times in this century: 2003, 2006, and again this year. Wichita, Kansas City, and St. Louis have all been affected at various times.

Moran said the EPA has threatened these cities with fines if they don’t meet the standards, which through no fault of their own they haven’t met.

According to Moran, at this point the fines have not been levied but the threat is there. Moreover, if they don’t get the impossible plan they’re asking for, the EPA may ban the burning altogether, and that’s the fear of both Moran and the ranchers who depend on the area for their livelihood.

Should the prescribed burns end, the tall-grass prairie would disappear within a generation:

“That would destroy something that is a pretty special place,” Moran said.

Mark Smith, president of the Kansas Livestock Association, agreed:

We have to have that tool to keep one of the last great natural areas in the world natural.

Enter Moran’s legislation, which would simply exempt cities from the Clean Air Act so long as they can show the violation was due to smoke from the Flint Hills. Moran said all he would like to see is a little common sense, as environmental regulations are currently in danger of … damaging the environment.

It particularly stands out because it’s the support of an environmentally sound practice that is being attacked.

Moran is hoping to attract cosponsors for his bill. Kansas Rep. Lynn Jenkins has already signed on, and he expects the rest of the Kansas delegation probably will and thinks Oklahoma will as well.

He thinks it’s possible to get the bill passed, but acknowledges it will be an uphill fight with the current administration and Congress — and if it does pass, it will probably have to be folded into larger legislation which may cause people to “holdeth aside the hem of the garment” in order to pass it:

“It’s very hard to get anything perceived as dangerous to the environment through this Congress,” he said. “One would hope common sense would prevail.”

One would hope.

Please contact your representatives and ask them to support Moran’s bill, H.R.5118. This is the last place in the world of it’s kind, and shortsighted regulations threaten the destruction of a beautiful area and unique lifestyle.

Patrick Richardson has been a journalist for almost 15 years and an inveterate geek all his life. He blogs regularly at www.otherwheregazette.com, which aims to be like another SF magazine, just not so serious.
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