This spring, the pungent smell of smoke over the Nebraska landscape was more prevalent than ever. Landowners across the state increasingly are using prescribed fire as a cost-efficient tool for managing wildlife habitat and grazing lands.
Although land managers have been conducting prescribed burns on Nebraska’s federal, state and nonprofit conservation organization lands for years, private landowners are also beginning to recognize the benefits of fire on the landscape. Since about 97 percent of the state is privately owned, this will have a tremendous effect on Nebraska’s vegetation, wildlife and ranch land as the practice increases.
Prescribed fire is used both in grasslands and in woodlands that support a diversity of land uses, including grazing, forestry, wildlife production and recreation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regularly burns on National Wildlife Refuges, as does the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission on its Wildlife Management Areas. Nonprofit conservation organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy and Audubon, also conduct prescribed burning on their lands.
Prescribed burning is conducted for a variety of purposes: Invasive species control, wildfire fuels reduction, and wildlife habitat and grazing lands improvement to increase plant diversity, rejuvenate shrubs and set back cool-season grasses.
March and April are generally considered the best time to burn in Nebraska, especially if the goal is to control eastern red cedar, which is most susceptible to fire during that time. The trick is finding the right conditions between snowmelt and grass green-up that will ensure a burn meets its objectives. The weather window is often too narrow to offer enough good burning days to get all the planned burns done during the spring, so many land managers have started doing some of their burning in the fall—after the first killing frost but before winter weather conditions set in.
Getting past the bias
In the early days, pioneers were terrorized by raging lightning-caused wildfires that swept across the prairies and woodlands, often destroying unprotected homesteads and sometimes even whole towns. People became convinced that fire is bad. Over time, settlers became better at putting out wildfires, thus protecting their structures.
Federal and state governments historically encouraged wildfire suppression. Campaigns featuring celebrities such as Smokey Bear and Bambi garnered public support and cooperation. “Only YOU can prevent forest fires,” said Smokey Bear. That bear trained us well, and still haunts us today.
By so successfully suppressing fires, people inadvertently began changing the landscape. With the exclusion of fire, plant communities moved into later successional stages, with fewer stand-replacing events to set back mature habitats to early successional stages. This reduced the diversity of plant age classes, thus reducing the diversity of the wildlife that inhabits them.
Prairies were overtaken by shrubs and trees, reducing available habitat for grassland birds. Woodlands and forests, no longer thinned by natural fire, became choked with understory vegetation—too dense to support the woodland-dependent wildlife that once thrived there. Woody fuels built up to unhealthy levels, so when lightning did strike, the wildfires became harder to suppress. Overcrowding weakens trees and makes forests more susceptible to disease and insects. When the stressed trees die and dry, they add to the overabundance of fuels for wildfires.
When scientists recognized what was happening, they realized that fire must be reintroduced into the equation and allowed to resume its historic role of maintaining healthy ecosystems. But if wildfires were just suddenly allowed to burn unchecked, the decades of accumulated fuels would guarantee devastating infernos that would destroy property and set back too much habitat at one time, risking eliminating the equally important later successional habitats.
Prescribed fire—fire that is intentionally set under a “prescription” of ideal temperature, humidity and wind conditions—can be used to reduce fuel loading and rejuvenate the land. Because these fires are not set during extreme weather conditions and are conducted by trained personnel, they are generally more controlled and often cooler than wildfires, and they are intended to achieve specific objectives.
Although some progress has been made on both private and public lands, the magnitude of the situation assures that there are no easy solutions. The longer fire is excluded, the more difficult and costly it becomes to deal with the results of that exclusion. State and federal agencies and conservation organizations budget what funds they can to address the problem on their lands. It’s even tougher for private landowners who must make a living on their land.
Some federal and state programs are available to assist landowners with planning and funding for prescribed fire and other habitat improvement practices. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program that help fund these efforts on private lands. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service makes habitat improvement funds available to the states through the State Wildlife Grants Program. In Nebraska, these funds are administered by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. The commission also has funding provided through the Nebraska Environmental Trust. The Nebraska Forest Service has funds available to help reduce fuel buildup in wooded areas. All of these private lands programs require a landowner match, either cash or in-kind, usually between 25 percent and 50 percent of the costs of the practices.
Prescribed fire has been considered with suspicion—and even fear—by many people, despite the increased use of this tool by some land managers. Concerns put forward about the practice include liability issues, air-quality degradation and fear of escape. But Nebraskans are seeing this issue addressed successfully in other states, and many believe it can be done here.
There are three basic ways for a landowner to successfully put prescribed fire on the ground: Using a contractor, working with a volunteer fire department or doing it on their own with help from friends and neighbors. The hurdles landowners most frequently encounter are a lack of training, a lack of equipment and a lack of people to help. Contractors are usually costly, and there are very few of them in the state.
How do volunteer fire departments fit in?
Volunteer fire departments differ greatly across the state in their attitudes toward the use of prescribed fire. Some departments are progressive, even using prescribed burning as a fundraising mechanism. Other departments are leery of the practice, but will generally issue burn permits for it. But some departments are adamantly against prescribed fire and will not issue permits for the practice under any circumstances.
Education and training are key to increasing the comfort level of volunteer fire departments with the idea that prescribed fire can be a useful tool and can reduce the threat of wildfire in their districts. Departments have historically been trained in fire suppression, not ignition. As the use of prescribed fire increases, volunteer fire departments will have more opportunities to receive training in its safe and effective use.
Providing funding can also help bring volunteer fire departments into the realm of prescribed fire. The Sandhills Task Force is in the second year of a program to recognize and award funding to volunteer fire departments that actively participate in prescribed burning. According to Jim Van Winkle, project coordinator, interest from fire departments is up significantly this year.
Prescribed burn associations are on the rise
Taking a cue from landowners who have been prescribed burning for many years in other states such as Texas and Kansas, landowners across Nebraska have begun organizing prescribed burn associations. These associations, created by and for private landowners, provide the framework for returning fire to the landscape in a safe and cost-effective way. They furnish training to landowners, provide a network of neighbor contacts to facilitate people-power for burning and often house fire equipment for conducting prescribed burns.
Prescribed fire associations in Nebraska include the Niobrara Valley Prescribed Fire Association (Brown, Boyd, Cherry, Holt, Keya Paha, Knox, and Rock counties), Loess Canyons Rangeland Alliance (headquartered in Curtis), East Loess Canyons Rangeland Alliance (Gothenburg), Central Nebraska Prescribed Burn Association (Howard County), South Central Nebraska Prescribed Burn Association (Franklin County), Rainwater Basin Prescribed Burn Association (Clay and Fillmore counties), Elkhorn Valley Prescribed Burn Association (Cuming and Burt counties), Tri County Prescribed Burn Association (Lancaster, Saline and Seward counties) and Southwest Nebraska Prescribed Burn Association (Furnas, Frontier, Hayes, Hitchcock and Red Willow counties). New associations are also starting up in Chase County (Imperial) and Sidney.
The Prescribed Burn Task Force was established in 1995 to serve Buffalo, Custer, Dawson and Lincoln counties. It began with a group of entities including the Natural Resources Conservation Service, County Extension Service, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and others. Originally known as the Custer County Cedar Tree Control Task Force, its goal was to provide a long-term educational effort to address cedar control, utilizing the whole gamut of tools (chemical, mechanical and fire). The organization now focuses on prescribed fire. They have sponsored training not only in their four-county core area but also in the panhandle, eastern Nebraska and as far away as Iowa. The organization has received grants from the Nebraska Environmental Trust and the Wild Turkey Federation to purchase prescribed fire equipment. Landowners participate in educational classes and training burns before they can use the equipment. The organization has also been instrumental in helping launch several prescribed fire associations in the state.
Additionally, the Nebraska Prescribed Fire Safety Council promotes the safe, legal and responsible use of prescribed fire as a natural resource management tool. The council facilitates training opportunities, provides education and information and functions as an information clearinghouse for prescribed fire statewide.
Education will go a long way toward changing the attitudes and acceptance levels of landowners, volunteer fire department personnel, community leaders and the general public. Formal training, seminars, workshops and tours of areas that have been burned are all beneficial but only if they are attended by people who need to receive the information.
If issues such as air quality, potential for escape and liability are addressed, people will be more likely to accept prescribed fire as a tool. Many states, including Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Florida, have made legislative changes to accommodate prescribed fire.
For example, the Florida Prescribed Burning Act defines important standards for prescribed burning and reduces liability for burners who are properly certified and abide by the regulations. Texas law guarantees landowners the right to burn on their own property and sets up a prescribed burn manager certification system and a Prescribed Burning Board. This legislation was passed to facilitate, not hinder, the prudent use of prescribed fire in Texas.
Public policy changes in Nebraska are needed if prescribed fire is to become more practicable in the state. On March 29, state Sen. Annette Dubas introduced a legislative resolution to institute an interim study to examine the practice and its function in managing plant and animal communities. LR 481 was referred to the Natural Resources Committee on April 7.
This study would investigate the purpose and necessity of prescribed burns and examine their function in managing plant and animal communities, determine the status of prescribed burning law in Nebraska and other states and the status and issues surrounding prescribed burning laws in local government, consider the required knowledge of the surrounding natural resources and wildlife habitats to conduct prescribed burning, ascertain public interest in allowing or prohibiting prescribed burns, and consider fire management best practices and any correlative educational or legal issues.
This is an important first step toward better integrating prescribed burning into Nebraska’s land management practice “toolbox.” Legislation protecting landowners’ ability to use prescribed fire, with due consideration of public safety and air-quality concerns, would bring the state’s laws into harmony with surrounding states and provide a vehicle with which to improve habitat and reduce wildfire risks.
Where do we go from here?
It’s imperative to continue supporting the establishment of prescribed fire associations statewide. These associations form the grassroots front line of citizens who actively practice environmental stewardship on a personal, ranch-by-ranch scale.
We must provide increased training opportunities for landowners and volunteer fire department personnel. On a broader scale, we need to educate the public about the benefits of prescribed fire to wildlife, livestock and people.
Most importantly, we must pursue public policy changes and legislation that will enable and encourage responsible prescribed burning in Nebraska.