The Environment


Prairie Fire Newspaper went on hiatus after the publication of the September 2015 issue. It may return one of these days but until then we will continue to host all of our archived content for your reading pleasure. Many of the articles have held up well over the years. Please contact us if you have any questions, thoughts, or an interest in helping return Prairie Fire to production. We can also be found on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you to all our readers, contributors, and supporters - the quality of Prairie Fire was a reflection of how many people it touched (touches).

No Home on the Range: Climate Change and the Buffalo Commons

By Robert K. Schneiders

In 1987 geographers Frank and Deborah Popper wrote their now-famous “Buffalo Commons” article. In the article, published in December of that year in Planning magazine under the title “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust,” the Poppers argued that the interplay of environmental, economic, and demographic variables would foster the eventual formation of a “Buffalo Commons” across remote, depopulated segments of the American Great Plains. This “Commons” would consist of large bison herds, which according to the Poppers represented the most environmentally sustainable and economically viable use of the semiarid grassland regions of the continental United States.

Yet, over twenty-five years after the publication of the widely readarticle, it is now evident that the Poppers’ vision of the Great Plains will never come to pass. Three environmental factors (all related to climate change)guarantee that the Buffalo Commons will remain only a theoryrather than an actual means of organizing the Great Plains environment and economy.

A Simple Solution for the Public to Transform Recycling

By Mitch Hedlund

A Recycling Update: Recycling has the potential to be the number one thing we can do for the environment, for the economy, for sustainable manufacturing, and to prevent waste from going into the oceans—but it only works when society recycles right. Unfortunately, recycling hasn’t been working very well in the US. In fact, today the national recycling levels are at 33 percent and falling (down from the already low 34.5 percent, US EPA). Recently, the largest recycling haulers in the US have declared recycling unprofitable and in crisis, announcing the closing of many of their processing plants.

Here’s why recycling hasn’t been working well: Recycling is a public action. The recycling industry and manufacturers who want to use recycled content in their manufacturing rely on you, me, and three hundred million other people in this country to recycle properly.

Rethinking Our Gas Tank

By Bryan Mellage

Ever since the invention of the horseless carriage, there has been the need for transportation fuel. From the very beginning, the construction of motorized vehicles required certain items, such as an engine, tires, a steering wheel, and some kind of drivetrain. Early models did not even have windshields or brakes; they came later. But you had to have a gas tank to make the engine run. Now that you had a gas tank, you needed to fill it up with some kind of fuel to propel your motor vehicle.

Henry Ford was a farmer who promoted the idea of using ethanol as the means to fuel the engines of the cars and trucks he was building. The marketplace made the decision, and gasoline became the transportation fuel of choice. We now have over a hundred years of building the infrastructure to find, supply, deliver, and subsidize the systems needed so that we can drive to our local gas station and, without any regard to how the fuel got there, fill up our gas tanks with relatively low-cost premium ethyl.

The Prodigal Naturalist, Part Four: Cosmic Saunters and Rusty Bats

By Jack Phillips

I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust, and when sometimes I have stolen forth for a walk at the eleventh hour, or four o’clock in the afternoon, too late to redeem the day, when the shades of night were already to be mingled with the daylight, have felt as if I had committed some sin to be atoned for.... —Thoreau, “Walking”

I can usually tell what our Labrador retrievers have discovered by their body language and choreography. They aren’t much for standing point, preferring to dance around and stomp, dart, and lunge with hackles up, putting on ferocious airs. The possum dance, snake dance, baby rabbit dance, fledgling flicker dance, all follow the genetic remonstrations directed by some distant rubric of evolution. Deer and turkeys make them crazy. At such times one might imagine they descended from wolves. The fact that they have thoroughly confirmed their ancestry did not deter them from making that case once again for the edification of a very unhappy and wet bat.

Climate, Politics, and Religion

Banksy tag. (RomanyWG

By Katharine Hayhoe

New to Texas Tech, it was my first year as an atmospheric science professor. We’d just moved to Lubbock, the second most conservative town in the United States. A colleague asked me to guest teach his undergraduate geology course while he was out of town.

The packed lecture hall was cavernous and dark. Many of the students were glued to their phones; others were slumped over, dozing. I began with the fundamental components of the climate system; I waded through the geologic climate record and ice core data; and finally, I explained natural cycles and the role of carbon dioxide—both natural and human-produced—in controlling Earth’s climate.

I ended my lecture, as many professors do, with a hopeful invitation for any questions. One hand immediately shot up.

Someone had been listening—and cared enough to ask a question! I thought.

The first student stood up. I looked encouraging. He cleared his throat. And then, in a loud and belligerent tone, he stated:

“You’re a Democrat, aren’t you?”

Sherman Ranch

By William S. Whitney

Years ago my father suggested that I meet a conservation-minded man named Tom Sherman who owned land on the Platte River near Marquette. At the time—in the late 1970s—my wife, Jan, and I had moved back to my hometown of Aurora and were becoming more interested in conservation. I only vaguely remember Tom driving me along his pasture and river lowland meadow. I had not yet developed an eye for the subtle beauty of Hamilton County’s Platte River Bluffs, much less an ecological appreciation and detailed knowledge about the area where I grew up. From that outing, I did, however, remember Tom’s attachment to, and pride in, his land, as well as his desire to take good care of it. That was the extent of our association until the late 1990s when Tom called me to ask if I would be a part of the Bader Park board. Subsequently I saw him more often at park meetings. I still did not know him well but through the park work grew to appreciate his strong fundamental sense of community service, thrift, and pragmatism. He was a steadfast supporter of Bader Park and a smaller park near his land, Tooley Park, which he oversaw for many years. In fact, he was responsible for the creation of Tooley Park as a Hamilton County commissioner in the 1990s (he was also on the Central Platte NRD board in its early days).

Documentary Will Share Impact of Drought on Ag Production

By Molly Nance

Drought causes devastating impacts to agriculture and the environment. According to a recent report from the University of California in Davis, California’s current drought is expected to cost the state an estimated $2.2 billion this year, along with a loss of more than seventeen thousand jobs, as farmers are forced to fallow some valuable crops. Total cost projections from drought are difficult to quantify, but the World Economic Forum estimates that drought across the globe costs six to eight billion dollars a year from losses in agriculture and related businesses.

Nebraska: Where the West Begins (and the East Peters Out)

By Paul A. Johnsgard

In the mid-1800s the immigrants following the North Platte River upstream knew they had finally entered the American West as they approached Chimney Rock, the most easterly of the iconic monoliths along the Oregon Trail. In the parlance of the day, this landmark, at 103.2 degrees west latitude, confirmed that they were finally “seeing the elephant.” A general awareness that Nebraska represents a transition zone between East and West was formalized by the state legislature in 1963, in accepting our official state logo as “Welcome to Nebraska, Where the West Begins.”

There is some biological evidence for this assertion. In 1887 Charles Bessey, botany professor at the University of Nebraska, reported finding a “meeting place” of eastern and western floras in western Rock County’s Niobrara Valley, near the mouth of Long Pine Creek, at 99.8 degrees west latitude. Roger T. Peterson vacillated in selecting the western terminus of coverage in early editions of his classic Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America, but by its fourth (1980) edition he had chosen the 100th meridian, the approximate longitudinal midpoint of the Great Plains. In a 1978 analysis of the zoogeography of more than two hundred species of breeding birds in the Great Plains, I also concluded that the 100th meridian represents a fairly accurate division point between eastern and western bird faunas, and it also closely conforms to the middle of several hybrid zones that exist in several of the occasionally interbreeding species of Great Plains birds.

The Prodigal Naturalist, Part Three: Deeper Still

By Jack Phillips

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. —Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays, First Series: Circles, 1841

I love wooded ravines but love them a little less on humid summer days when mosquitoes also love them. My prairie friends complain of sylvan claustrophobia, but I take comfort in leafy embrace. I was raised where the tallgrass prairies and woodlands of the east thin into shortgrass prairies and oak savanna holdouts to the west. For me the woods have meant shade and water and amphibians who, like me, live in the Plains but dream in deep time and forested reverie. The vocation of the mosquito swarm is to perturb me into wakefulness or profanity at least. But I want to go deeper still to find the circle within the circle, the place were light makes a threshold of darkness, the place were new realities open as the earth narrows, the place where “the tempered light of the woods is like a perpetual morning...” as Emerson found.*

The Prodigal Naturalist, Part Two: At Home

By Jack Phillips

Something that is designed is done so with a purpose. The object of design conforms to that end. For English writer Richard Jefferies (1848–1887), nature lacked design because it did not conform to the human needs. To view nature through the lens of usefulness prevents one from actually seeing or even crudely apprehending her. The belief that nature is somehow arranged, drawn up, or designed for the benefit of humanity creates a “petty, despicable, micro-cosmus” that is a sorry substitute for reality. I understand that many Americans believe that the earth and its riches are rightfully subject to capitalistic exploitation by divine edict, but I will not wander into that theological thicket here.

Climate Change and Its Biological Effects in the Great Plains

By Paul A. Johngard

For much of the latter twentieth century, and especially during the past few decades, the Great Plains has experienced a warming trend that is part of a global phenomenon. The year 2014 had the highest annual average global temperature (58.24° Fahrenheit) of any year since such records began over 130 years ago. Previous heat records were broken in 2010 and 2005. The last time the Earth’s record for annual cold temperatures occurred, it was more than a century ago, in 1911.

With regard to birds, the side effects of global warming include changes in their breeding phenology or fecundity, in the composition and structure of their breeding and wintering habitats, or their migration timing, routes, and staging areas. Accelerating global climatic changes have already had many evident effects on birds. These include a poleward shift in avian wintering ranges, northward movements in the breeding ranges of some North American birds. Various other biological influences on birds and other wildlife have been reported. Less obvious indirect effects of climate change on a species might result from climate-based influences on regional parasites, diseases, competitors, and predators.

Conserving Biodiversity in a Changing Climate

A very dry Republican River, Furnas County, 2003. (Dr. Ken Dewey, School of Natural Resources, UNL)

By Rick Schneider

Climate change is already having significant impacts on wild species and ecosystems, and these are likely to increase considerably in the future. Climate change components affecting biodiversity include increasing temperature, changes in precipitation patterns, and increases in the frequency and intensity of storms flooding, droughts, and wildfires. Natural systems provide numerous benefits to humans, including ecosystem services that sustain communities and economies. Action is needed now to safeguard species and ecosystems and the communities and economies that depend on them. Addressing the growing threats brought about by rapid climate change will require new approaches to natural resource management and conservation. The conservation community, including staff at state and federal natural resource agencies, nonprofit conservation organizations, and universities, has been working to develop and implement strategies to help species adapt to climate change. What follows is an exploration of some of the impacts of climate change, particularly in the Great Plains, and some adaptation strategies to address those impacts.

A Look at District Energy

By Daniel Dixon

Imagine eating popcorn at Lincoln’s Pinnacle Bank Arena and cheering on the Huskers as they take the basketball court on a frigid January afternoon, or applauding your favorite band as they return to the stage for an encore on a muggy July evening. Thousands of people already have enjoyed such events. If you’re like most of them, you would focus on the action in front of you and wouldn’t give much thought to the source of energy that keeps you comfortable during these events.

Seeds of Wisdom: An Island of Grass and Healthy Land

By Peter Carrels

Watch the winds wiggle and bend grasses on an open plain. It’s a rhythmic response on the ground to moving air. But this movement, this dance, has been stilled on more than 235,000 square miles of North America. Grasslands have been steadily destroyed during the past century and a half, and that destruction accelerated in recent years as corn and soybean farming spread across the land.

Nebraska’s Climate Change Report

On September 25 the University of Nebraska released the Understanding and Assessing Climate Change: Implications for Nebraska report as part of the Heuermann Lecture Series. The full seventy-two-page report can be read at Don Wilhite and his colleagues graciously made the report summary available to Prairie Fire, but it was embargoed until the day after our October issue hit the streets. We are proud to display it on our front page in order to underscore the importance of this report.

By Don Wilhite, Bob Oglesby, Clint Rowe, and Deborah Bathke

Globally, we face significant economic, social, and environmental risks as we confront the challenges associated with climate change. The body of scientific evidence confirms with a high degree of certainty that human activities in the form of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, changes in land use, and other factors are the primary cause for the warming that the planet has experienced, especially in recent decades.

Seeds of Wisdom: Deep Roots for a Profitable, Largescale Organic Farm

By Peter Carrels

The first thing you’ve gotta do is dismiss the stereotype that organic farmers are small farmers. The second thing you must dismiss is the notion that organic growers are recent arrivals on the agricultural scene. Then you’d better understand the dramatically rising interest by consumers in healthy, nutritious foods.

Charlie and Allan Johnson’s organic farm in southeastern South Dakota has a poignant history, with a terrific backstory enriched by a father who inspired his sons.

The Prodigal Naturalist, Part One

By Jack Phillips

I look at the sunshine and feel that there is no contracted order: there is divine chaos, and, in it, limitless hope and possibilities. —Richard Jefferies, The Absence of Design in Nature, 1885

A sunny July morning drew me into a cool ravine in Iowa’s Loess Hills. I had a job to do, at least my colleagues did. My taxonomic skills are easily eclipsed; botanizing fell squarely on the shoulders of those with sufficient expertise. I was no less happy to be confused under that verdant chaos of snakeroot, bloodroot, goosefoot, virgin’s bower, maiden’s hair, jack-in-the-pulpit, licorice, fleabane, tick trefoil, clearweed, bittersweet, honeysuckle, bedstraw, bell-flower, oxalis, oak, basswood, ironwood, walnut, bladdernut, coffee-tree, ash, and others too numerous to name or master. That morning is best described with the words of Richard Jefferies: “There is no enough in nature. It is one vast prodigality. It is a feast. There is no economy: it is all one immense extravagance.” That deep ravine was an immense, extravagant, prodigal feast.

The ‘Better World’ Hypothesis: Reflections on the People’s Climate March

By Reverend Kimberly C. Morrow

I needed a good sign.

My fourteen-year-old daughter and I had traveled 1,300 miles from Lincoln, Nebraska, to the epicenter of throbbing Manhattan to take part in the People’s Climate March. I knew that photographers like good signs, and we all wanted great media coverage. I needed a short, pithy statement that encapsulated my theological stance on the climate crisis.

Roadside Caterpillar

By Kelly Madigan

After you search a hundred milkweed plants or so for caterpillars, you begin to pick up on the telltale signs that they are occupying a particular stem. Frass, primarily. Which is just another word for poop, which itself is another word for excrement. Caterpillars are voracious, and all that input means there must be some output, which looks like miniature kibble, dry and squareish, and it tends to collect on the leaf or leaves below the place where the fellow is munching. While the cat’ herself might be on the underside of the leaf, the frass is always on the top side, easily seen, and gives her location away.


Immigration in Nebraska

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