Fire's role in prairie survival stressed
By Environmental News Network staff
(ENN) -- The smell of burning leaves has always been a sure sign of autumn. But springtime in the Kansas Flint Hills often confuses the olfactory senses because of the prescribed burning that takes place at the Konza Prairie Research Natural Area and area ranches.
According to Kansas State University's David Hartnett, director of the Konza Prairie Research Natural Area, controlled burning is necessary for the prairie to survive.
"Burning is a natural process that occurred in the tall grass prairie long before it was settled. The prairie actually requires fire to maintain itself and to be sustained," Hartnett said.
"Without periodic fire, the prairie will actually disappear. The native grasses will eventually die out and shrubs and trees will invade and the prairie will no longer exist. So, fire is a critical element in maintaining a prairie."
Discovering the ecological benefit of fire in native grasslands has been the research focus of Kansas State biologists working at Konza for the past 25 years.
"We burn different parts of the Konza prairie at different intervals. Some are annually burned, some are burned at two-year intervals, four-year intervals, 10-year intervals, 20-year intervals, and at different times of the year, April, July, November, February. It's all a part of the research that assesses the role of fire and its timing and frequency and how it regulates the biological diversity, how it affects the sustainability and the productivity of the prairie.
"We have learned how burning increases the productivity of the prairie in the short-term, and how the combination of burning and grazing together help to maintain the diversity of native prairie plants."
The tall grass prairie of the Kansas Flint Hills is extremely important ecologically, as well as economically and agriculturally. As a result, two film crews recently visited Konza to shoot footage of the slowly vanishing frontier.
One film is being produced by a company out of Austria and will focus largely on the importance of fire. The other is being developed in cooperation with Inland Sea Productions of Kansas City, and the Kansas State University Research Foundation.
Hartnett said many people are not aware of the importance of the tall grass prairie.
"The goal of the film is to generate some understanding and appreciation of how ecologically important the tall grass prairie is, how endangered it is in terms of how little is left, and how economically and agriculturally important the prairie is, and has been, as a resource for our primary agriculture use today which is raising livestock for food production. There's been so much emphasis on other, more exotic ecosystems in terms of nature films and documentary films, but none of those areas are more important than the tall grass prairie economically, ecologically and historically.
"It's considered one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America just based on how much of it remains today. Of the original tall grass prairie that stretched from Canada all the way to Texas and throughout much of the Eastern Great Plains, only about 2 percent remains. A great majority of that is here in the Flint Hills."
According to Hartnett, the film project began almost two years ago but recently received significant funding from private foundations and federal agencies.
"The film is really focused on the tall grass prairie, the Flint Hills of Kansas, and the science going on at Kansas State University. It will highlight what the research on Konza prairie is doing, why the research is important, what sort of things we've learned about the prairie through the 20-some years of research out there."
According to Aimee Larrabee, co-filmmaker of Inland Sea Productions, the Kansas prairie has always fascinated both her and her partner, John Altman. The idea for the film was important to both of them.
"We're both natives of the Kansas City area and so we're both very familiar with that beautiful stretch of prairie in the Flint Hills," Larrabee said. "When we were brainstorming ideas, this was one that was at the top of both our lists."
Larrabee also said that in pitching the idea of the film, everyone has reacted favorably. "We recently received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to fund the film," she said. "The people at NEA said that it was about time someone brought attention to this beautiful land."
The production company has already collected more than 30 hours of film and hopes to air the documentary on PBS in 1999. Hartnett said other avenues for distribution of the film may also be explored, such as educational, national and international television. Inland Sea Productions is currently working on a museum exhibit as a companion to the film.
"It's in the initial stages of design," Larrabee said. "It will be a traveling exhibit for children's science museums. Konza prairie will be the main example of the grassland ecosystem. What the researchers are doing at Konza is absolutely fascinating. In our work at Konza we've been able to meet researchers from around the world and they all say Konza is the premier research center. They come here to learn how to maintain their own grasslands.
"It's an honor to be able to show a world audience how beautiful the prairie is."
For more information, contact David Hartnett, (785) 532-5925, or Aimee Larrabee, (816) 221-3883.
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