A year ago, Karl Brooks, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 7 administrator, spoke to a roomful of Lawrence Rotarians about a controversy smoldering in the Flint Hills.
The annual burning of the Flint Hills helps maintain productive range land for cattle, keeps woody plants in check and increases the biodiversity of one of the last and largest pieces of tallgrass prairie in North America. However, that burning also means smoke blows to cities downwind.
A couple of times each year that smoke — when combined with the right weather conditions — was throwing major metro areas out of compliance with the federal Clean Air Act. If that happens too many times, cities such as Wichita and Kansas City could be faced with a series of costly measures to keep air pollution at bay.
Landowners feared that the EPA would require burn permits, and the Kansas Legislature passed a resolution asking Congress to exempt Flint Hills burning from air-quality standards.
“We were just in the very early stages of wading out into that very hot controversy,” Brooks said to the same group of Rotarians at a noon lunch on Monday.
Brooks lives in Lawrence and is on leave from Kansas University where he is a professor of environmental history and policy. Many in the crowd were neighbors, friends and KU colleagues.
Brooks said while there are many other environmental controversies involving the EPA, burning in the Flint Hills is one that has made significant progress. In the past year, the EPA has been meeting with stakeholders — the cattle industry, range managers, landowners, air-quality experts and state and local governments — to find a solution.
“There were lots of meeting and lots of Styrofoam coffee,” Brooks said.
What they arrived at is a system that doesn’t issue permits, but in which landowners are asked to voluntarily consider weather patterns and what their neighbors are burning. In some counties, open burning during April is only allowed for agriculture purposes. More information is available on where that smoke travels as well as why burning is needed.
With those guidelines, agriculture producers are asked to burn responsibly.
Air-quality standards were exceeded four times during the four weeks of the 2011 burning season. And, that’s not a bad number, Brooks told the crowd.
“The folks who were involved in this — the ranchers, scientists, the land managers — basically look at this and say, all right, we have a system in place based on science and education and personal responsibility and government doing what government does best, which is high grade research and bringing people together, where it looks like we targeted a doable task,” Brooks said. “And that is a long way from where we were a year ago.”
While Brooks isn’t promising that air-quality standards won't ever be exceeded in 2012, he said finding a solution to better manage the burning of the Flint Hill is promising.
“The progress that has been made in a year has really given me a better appreciation for how the EPA can put its shoulders into the field and do something constructive,” Brooks said.