A Prairie Project
By Dena Bunnel
Every spring, the familiar scent of burning grasses settles on the Flint Hills as smoke rolls across the pastures and fire dances on the prairies. It is burning season, an important time for ranchers who graze their cattle on these lands, but there is a group of people at K-State interested in more than just the green grass that will appear after the burn. Since 1971, K-State researchers have been working on the Konza Prairie Biological Station, a 8,616.6 acre native tallgrass prairie located just outside of Manhattan.
The effects of burning is just one area of research that K-State faculty and students are studying. The native tallgrass Konza Prairie is owned by K-State and The Nature Conservancy. According to the Konza Prairie’s Web site, www.konza. ksu.edu, it contains research sites that focus on long-term ecological research, education and prairie conservation. The research being conducted on the prairie, which is almost entirely native grasses, provides a useful reference point to evaluate man-made systems, such as land used for agriculture, against a natural ecosystem, says Karen Garrett, associate professor in the Department of Plant Pathology. “From the standpoint of agricultural science, Konza offers a really valuable comparison for agricultural systems,” Garrett says.
The Travel of Smoke
One major area of research relates to the smoke from the spring burns and its movement. Air quality issues with the burns gained attention when the smoke plume from the burns in the Flint Hills was carried into the Kansas City area in spring 2003, says Jay Ham, professor in the Department of Agronomy. When the smoke interacted with the exhaust from cars to form ozone, it caused Kansas City to exceed its allowable ozone limit, which is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The problem arises because many ranchers will often burn in a narrow period of time due to weather restrictions, such as rain or wind. If the weather and wind are just right when ranchers burn, the smoke can drift from the Flint Hills right into Kansas City, Ham says. This issue increased the need for research in this area at K-State, and now Ham and other researchers are developing an Internet-based system for ranchers to self-manage burning on the tallgrass prairie. “This smoke and fire management tool that we’re trying to develop is really important for the long-term health and sustainability of the prairie,” Ham says. “We want to make sure that ranchers are able to continue the burning of the prairie in the best way, using the latest technology.” The program, Blue Sky, will allow ranchers and land managers to log on to the system and put in a date to burn, Ham says. The system will tell them where the A Prairie Project K-State faculty and students conduct research on the Konza Tallgrass Prairie by Dena Bunnel ” It’s a win-win for everybody.
The environment and agriculture come out ahead. — Jay Ham, professor in the Department of Agronomy “ Photo co urte sy of Kira arnol d College Closeup Kansas State Agriculturist Fall 2008 23 smoke will go on that particular day so they can determine if it will be a good day to burn. Blue Sky is currently used in the Pacific Northwest for prescribed forest burning, but before it can be used on the tallgrass prairie, a great deal of initial research has to be done, Ham says. Some of the questions that have to be addressed are how fast the fire burns, how much smoke comes off the prairie and the directions in which that smoke travels.
Educating about Burning
Education is also an important focus of the K-State faculty because many people do not understand the importance of burning the prairies each spring, Ham says. “They have to burn the prairie to keep it a prairie,” he says. “A lot of people don’t understand that.” If the prairies are not burned regularly, wooded vegetation will begin to grow quickly. Burning is part of the prairie’s evolutionary history, Ham says. The Flint Hills have remained a prairie because lightening used to cause fires on the prairie or Native Americans would light the fires. Now, land managers have to continue to burn the prairie to keep out shrubs and trees. At the same time, burning increases the productivity of the grass. Thus, the burning is good for the ecology and the ranchers who use land around the Konza prairie for grazing. “It’s a win-win for everybody,” Ham says. “The environment and agriculture come out ahead.”
A Changing Climate
Another area of research is climate change and the effect that it could have on the tallgrass prairie. Garrett is working with the epidemiology of plant communities and plant pathogens. She is studying how plants adapt to climate change and how plant pathogen interactions may be the result of climate change. “Trying to understand the mechanism by which they respond should help us understand whether they will be able to adapt,” Garrett says. Increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere due to fossil fuels released from cars have created serious concerns about climate and weather changes and what they could mean for the future, Ham says.
This has led researchers to examine the possible relationships between carbon and the prairie. A large amount of research is being done on the Konza Prairie to determine if prairie grass can help absorb some of the carbon from the atmosphere. This storage of carbon, known as carbon sequestration, or lack thereof, is monitored year round on the Konza by Ham and his fellow researchers. One measurement method being used is eddy covariance and is being conducted by Kira Arnold, a graduate student in agronomy. Basically, it involves the use of wind and gas-concentration sensors to study the lowest part of the atmosphere, Arnold says. “This type of work is important because it provides a solid foundation for modeling behavior of something like carbon sequestration,” she says, which is important in terms of global climate change. Ham compares his research on carbon storage to balancing a checkbook.
“During the summer when the grass is growing and the system is absorbing CO2, it’s like money going into your bank account,” he says. “At night and during the winter, it loses carbon. That’s like money leaving your back account. So we measure all the carbon coming in and all the carbon going out for the whole year and add it all, like balancing your checkbook.” What researchers have been discovering, Ham adds, is that at the end of each year and from yearto- year, that checkbook balance stays about the same. The prairie has proven to be remarkably stable and adaptable to changes, he says. The research can help predict how climate might affect the productivity of the prairie and how it might ultimately affect ranching and the profitability of ranching, Ham says. “Even if there is climate change,” Ham says, “I think ranching will still be very viable. The prairie seems to be very resilient to changes.