Critics of field burning to conduct their own [fire] on prairie
(Note: Do you think TNC sent out an advance warning to all the creatures, that their homes, i.e., habitat, would soon go "up in smoke?" TNC to farmers: Our Smoke better than Your Smoke. Where nothing is holy but our Power and Control of the land / water / "ecosystem" / country / world / UNIVERSE.)
September 20, 2006
By Diane Dietz [email protected] or 541-338-2376
The Register-Guard
P.O. Box 10188
Eugene, Oregon 97440-2188
Fax: 541-338-2828
To submit a Letter to the Editor: [email protected] (250-word limit)

Environmentalists chide grass seed farmers for burning their fields and filling the skies with smoke that can choke children and asthmatics.

But this fall, conservationists -- kissing cousins to environmentalists -- together with a government agency, are preparing to do some field burns of their own.

The Nature Conservancy and the Bureau of Land Management [BLM] hope to char the vegetation off about 214 acres of their jointly-owned 3,000-acre prairie in west Eugene .

The nonprofit group and the BLM stress that prairie burning is very different from the controversial fires that Willamette Valley grass seed farmers set on tens of thousands of acres in July, August and September to clear their fields after harvest.

"This doesn't look anything like the smoke column that we see north of town that goes up and it's black, and it's huge, and it hangs," said Jason Nuckols, the conservancy's Willamette Valley preserves manager.

The natural prairie fires produce a wispier smoke.

"Even if we do 100 acres, it would be such light smoke," said Nancy Ashlock, a BLM fire staff member. "We don't have a big, huge intense column that (farmers) get."

The dates of the BLM/Nature Conservancy blazes are uncertain because the practice requires specific wind and humidity conditions.

But the last day the agencies can burn is October 15, so they'll try to get the job done before then.

The grass has to be dry for a day or two to ignite well, Ashlock said.

And the winds have to be blowing from the north to carry the smoke over the hills to the south and away from the metropolitan area.

Smoke in the air has gained more attention as scientists find ever-stronger evidence that it causes illness and death from heart and lung diseases.

When grass seed farmers burn, they make giant clouds because they sometimes burn hundreds of acres at a time.

But Nuckols said conservationists burn tens of acres at a time.

Grass seed fires burn from two to four times more material per acre, compared with natural prairie burns, according to conservancy reckoning.

"When you walk around in the prairie, there's a lot of open ground. You walk out into a (grass seed) field that's planted in rows millimeters apart, it's solid," Nuckols said.

"When we're burning, I stand right in the middle of the burn. I'm moving through it with a drip torch -- I don't think you could do that in the middle of a field burn with all that smoke," Nuckols added.

But conservationists and grass seed farmers burn for some of the same reasons.

The flames remove thatch and make room for a desired plant -- for grass seed farmers, that's a pure, marketable lawn seed; for conservationists, it's a variety of native plants.

But conservationists also burn to get rid of woody plants such as blackberries and ash trees that, if left to their own devices, would cover over the last remnants of historical prairie lands in the Willamette Valley .

"With a lot more trees, you shade out your prairie plants. We lose the diversity if we don't burn," Nuckols said.

Grass seed farmers stared burning in 1948 on the advice of crop experts at Oregon State University . Conservationists started burning in the past two decades to replicate what the Kalapuya people did to maintain the prairies for thousands of years, according to conservancy ecologist Edward Alverson.

The Kalapuya burned the Willamette Valley -- settler accounts recall the blackened lands -- to stimulate growth of camas, wild onion and yampah, which the tribes relied on for food.

Now, the conservancy says the flames will bolster the remaining populations of threatened prairie plants, such as Bradshaw's lomatium.

The conservancy has burned acreage in west Eugene eight of the past 20 years. It hopes eventually to burn all of its prairies on a schedule of once every three to five years.

Like grass seed farmers, conservationists need government permission to burn. Because the fields are in city limits, The Nature Conservancy and the BLM need permission from Eugene and the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency.

Last month, Nuckols carefully described the conservancy's plan -- and sharply distinguished it from field burning -- in a presentation to the air agency's board of directors. The board allowed the plan to proceed.

"I was fairly assured they were doing everything they could to minimize the smoke and the impacts on people," board member David Monk said.

"Everyone felt pretty confident that it was a good thing, and the manner they were doing it was satisfactory."

On the other hand, Monk said there's a move a foot among some LRAPA board members to send a formal request to the Oregon Legislature next year to further restrict the grass seed farmer's ability to burn straw residue.


Burning for Biodiversity 


The Nature Conservancy promotes a nationwide policy of using fire to stimulate the return of biodiversity to prairies and woodlands. Here's the number of acres the group has burned in Oregon in recent years:


1998: 51 acres

1999: 68 acres

2000: 443 acres

2001: 440 acres

2002: 130 acres

2003: 72 acres

2004: 7 acres

2005: 245 acres



Copyright 2006, The Register-Guard.