Growing up, this is about the time of year I spent plenty of weekends patrolling pastures for eastern red cedar trees to lop off with a pair of shears. It was easier to spot the evergreen saplings amidst the browns and tans of last year’s growing season. My job was to find the saplings growing in fence rows, draws and other areas where the fire we’d set a few weeks later was unlikely to reach them.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this particular plant is a marvelous organism. A member of the juniper family, the trees seemingly thrive anywhere from deep soils to bare rock. Heat, cold and drought are simple inconveniences.
These well-adapted trees have always been present in Kansas prairies, but they once were limited to some of the more marginal land. The cedars could flourish there precisely because there was little other organic matter around. On the open range, periodic wildfires would get hot enough to fully engulf full-grown trees allowing the grassland to reclaim the territory.
Today, prescribed burns are used in place of wildfires, especially in the Flint Hills of Kansas and Oklahoma. Here, an average of 2.2 million acres will be set ablaze this spring. In the coming weeks, evidence of these burns will be easily visible as plumes of smoke rise over the horizon.
Thankfully, rangeland managers have become more purposeful in timing their burns to minimize how much smoke reaches urban areas. Voluntary efforts like the Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan allow landowners access to detailed forecast and smoke modeling tools at www.ksfire.org so they can balance the need for burning with the air quality of their neighbors.
These extra steps are a small price to pay compared to the necessity of fire in preserving the prairie. For as well as cedars grow in marginal soils, they do even better in the sod of open ground. It’s not the plow or development that represents the greatest threat to the grasslands of tomorrow, rather it’s the advancement of woody plants like these.
This encroachment puts pressure on working rangelands by decreasing livestock production and increasing wildfire risk as well as harming grassland biodiversity for existing wildlife.
Expansive prairies are threatened with wholesale transition to woodland, and it can happen in short order. A recent report from Oklahoma State University points out woody plants have increased on more than 108 million acres in the western U.S. since 1999. In turn, that’s driving the potential collapse of the remaining Great Plains grassland.
Fire is both fast and affordable, but for its ability to preserve large expanses of grassland, prescribed fires aren’t the same as the wildfires that once ripped through the prairie. There were no fences, road ditches or windbreaks on nearby homes that would interrupt the fire’s spread.
Those areas today are a reservoir for mature cedars capable of producing seed that can travel a significant distance, advancing the line of encroachment. Now I’m not advocating we get rid of fences, ditches, windbreaks and other areas where cedars are safe from fire.
Rather those with a vested stake in maintaining our productive prairies have to find ways to work together to manage this threat. What that means is a heightened vigilance and perpetual management of cedars and other woody plants, even if that means I’m going to be spending a few weekends in the spring patrolling pastures again to ensure the rangeland in Kansas remains resilient.