Preserving the Tallgrass Prairie in the Face of Stringent Air Quality Standards: The Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan

Posted on January 17, 2011 by Charles Efflandt

It is an environmental truism that increasingly stringent air quality standards can cause collateral damage – typically economic in nature. It is less common for such standards to directly impact preservation of a significant North American ecosystem.

Comprising a vast area in eastern Kansas and northeast Oklahoma, the Flint Hills ecosystem remains today the last unfragmented expanse of tallgrass prairie on the continent. Roughly two-thirds of all tallgrass prairie in North America is contained in the Flint Hills. The Flint Hills provide a unique ecosystem for numerous mammals, birds, reptiles and cattle (the surrogate for the bison that once roamed this area and that served as a keystone species in maintaining biodiversity). The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy have both identified the Flint Hills as a priority conservation action site.

Fire is a critical ecological driver in the tallgrass prairie. Lightning is nature’s tool for this process of ecological renewal. The burning of large sections of the Flint Hills was practiced for centuries by Native Americans. In more modern times, controlled burning has been utilized by conservation agencies and organizations, as well as by ranchers, as an ecological and agricultural management tool. Tallgrass prairie preservation requires frequent burning to prevent the encroachment of woody species and maintain the integrity of the plant communities and wildlife habitat. From an agricultural perspective, the burning and renewal of the tallgrass has been shown to significantly increase the productivity of the rangeland for cattle ranching purposes.
 

Such frequent and widespread burning, however, creates health concerns. Air modeling has shown transport of PM and ozone precursors as far east as Tennessee during the burning season. Air pollutants from Flint Hills burning have also adversely impacted or threatened the NAAQS attainment status of areas in Kansas and Missouri. With more stringent ozone regulations imminent, this conflict between ecological preservation and compliance with air quality standards will be exacerbated.

A recent ACOEL posting suggested, in the climate change context, that the severe economic consequences of the traditional legislative/regulatory process can and should be mitigated through creative voluntary community effort. With the ecologically and agriculturally beneficial practice of tallgrass burning on a collision course with NAAQS attainment, such an approach was recently embraced by the U.S. EPA, Kansas Department of Health and Environment, conservation and agricultural organizations and academia. The December 2010 approval of the Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan was the result of over a year of collaborative effort by these stakeholders. The key elements of the Plan include:

  • A new website with a predictive plume modeling tool for public and private decision-making.
  • Development of fire management practices to mitigate adverse health consequences and NAAQS violations associated with controlled burning.
  • A comprehensive data collection effort to better characterize prairie burning and its consequences.
  • Proposed limited legal restrictions on open burning during critical time periods.
  • Extensive outreach and education efforts, including prescribed fire training programs, public-private information sharing, and media exposure.
  • A pilot project in the spring of 2011 in two Kansas counties to implement the predictive computer modeling and fire management practices.

The Plan has been attacked by certain environmental organizations as a “smoke screen” whose objective is to facilitate EPA exemption of burning from enforcement in order to maximize beef production. These critics discount the ecological motivation for the Plan and allege that it is unlikely to adequately protect public health. I would suggest that the Plan should not be viewed as the final answer. Rather, it should be considered a working document that will evolve as the results of modeling and data collection and level of voluntary implementation are evaluated. Time will tell the extent to which the Plan can be cited as further evidence of the power of voluntary, collaborative