A line of fire blazes in an ocean of grass. The smell of burning bluestem wisps through the air. A man dressed in leather boots carefully tips a drip torch to spark a flame onto the landscape–a familiar sight by those who live on working landscapes in the Great Plains.
In early spring, I photographed a prescribed burn on the Switzer Ranch, a fourth-generation ranching operation in the eastern Nebraska Sandhills. Prescribed burning in the Great Plains is a management technique that uses fire to manage invasive woody vegetation. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been a quasi-pyromaniac, so I was thrilled when I was asked to document this event. After seeing this practice and talking to the Switzers, I realized that fire in the Sandhills has been suppressed for generations. This notion of “fearing fire” sparked my curiosity to dig deeper and find out why, what this means for our ecology, and how we can encourage individuals to reintroduce fire back to the Sandhills.
The Nebraska Sandhills are nearly 20,000 square miles of contiguous grass-covered dunes which makes it the largest prairie grassland ecosystem remaining in the Great Plains. The soils of this ecoregion are dry and sandy, making it challenging to plant row crops. In between the grass-covered dunes lie pools of water fed by springs from the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer, North America’s largest. In the spring, meadowlark songs can be heard for miles, and in the early mornings grouse dance and battle for mates. Prairie dogs, pronghorn, and coyotes are only some of the alluring species that rely on vast contiguous grasslands to survive. But to keep grasslands healthy and intact, they need disturbance; they need grazers; they need fire.
Historically, lightning-induced wildfires were recurrent throughout the Great Plains. Also, Native American tribes applied fire to the land for numerous reasons: to improve hunting success, clear riparian areas, enhance growth and yield of grasses, and for insect collection. Fire was no stranger to the Sandhills; pre-settlement fires occurred on the landscape every 4-6 years.
Along with fire, millions of bison cast shadows across the one million square-mile ocean of prairie. Fire and bison brought disturbance to the grassland ecosystem, which is critical for promoting biological diversity and controlling the spread of invasive and woody species. The frequency of fire and grazing in a grassland ecosystem creates a shifting mosaic of different habitat types which increases the number of plant species and then, in turn, increases wildlife diversity. Without species diversity, the Sandhills would cease to exist as they are today.
During the Homestead Act of 1862, settlers started to occupy the American West. Nebraska was said to be “the garden of the west,” offering fertile soil for agriculture. When settlers arrived on the plains, the prairie was plowed, the American bison was hunted to near extinction, and wildfire suppression became a standard practice. The absence of bison and fire ultimately changed the heterogeneity of the landscape, and the prairie started to become overgrown with woody vegetation, reducing habitat for grassland species, including the greater prairie chicken. The greater prairie chicken is a grouse species that can be found in the Nebraska Sandhills. Greater prairie chickens need large open areas of grassland with minimal trees. Having these open grasslands is important for prairie chicken mating or “booming” grounds because it allows for maximum visibility to help evade from predators.
Another charismatic species that is affected by a changed fire regime is the blowout penstemon (Penstemon hayendii), a warm-season perennial plant only found in the Sandhills and a single location in Wyoming. Blowout penstemon thrive in blowouts, which are eroded areas or depressions formed by wind. A combination of drought, fire, grazing and high winds cause blowouts to form, thus creating a habitat for this rare plant species. Since fire has been suppressed for generations, blowouts became less abundant, ultimately driving the blowout penstemon to near extinction.
Jim Stubbendiek, Emeritus Professor (Grassland Ecology) and Emeritus Director, Center for Great Plains Studies, championed the recovery of the blowout penstemon. When he started his research, there were only 600 known blowout penstemon plants in the world, and he was able to increase the population to roughly 40,000. The path to increasing those numbers was not a walk in the park. When I spoke with him, he described the challenges of figuring out how these plants germinate and then, his moment of, “Eureka!”.
“I was sitting here one night and I was reading something, some obscure research paper from Israel that talked about some seeds in Israel in the desert [that] have a water-soluble inhibitor. What that means is, it inhibits the germination. Then you got to have a certain amount of rain to wash this inhibitor out of the seed, [and] then it can grow. So I took and tied a little batch of seed in a nylon stocking and hung it on a faucet and let it run overnight. I got 96% germination,” Jim said.
Once Jim figured out the perfect formula to get the seeds to germinate in the lab, then the recovery plan took off. Through efforts by Jim and others, the blowout penstemon can now be found only in a few places in the Nebraska Sandhills, including the Switzer Ranch.
Over time, scientists and landowners throughout the Great Plains have recognized the benefits of fire and slowly started introducing it back to the landscape. However, landowners in the Nebraska Sandhills have not been as eager to adopt this management practice. Since grass stabilizes the dunes, there is concern that if the soil were left exposed for too long, they would become mobile again. Minor periods of drought are proven not to affect the stabilization of the dunes. The root systems of the grasses underneath the soil are thick and act as a binding agent to prevent the dunes from mobilizing. If there was a drought that lasted more than a couple decades, then those landowners could be looking at a wind-swept desert landscape.
The Switzers started conducting prescribed burns on their ranch in 2010. They found this type of management to be a successful and cost-effective solution in controlling the spread of the invasive Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana).
“There are other advantages to burning, but Eastern redcedar is the main reason that we burn,” said Adam Switzer
The above slider shows in orange, the spread of woody vegetation from 2000 to 2018. The red outline is the Nebraska Sandhills. These maps were pulled from the Rangeland Analysis Platform application which was created in collaboration with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Dept. of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, and the University of Montana.
Eastern redcedars are native to states east of the 100th meridian which was the line defined by John Wesley Powell that separated the arid West from the humid East in the United States. Due to fire suppression, cedar populations have flourished and are rapidly spreading across the plains. A cedar-choked landscape impacts grassland birds, pollinators, and livestock grazing by converting grassland ecosystems into cedar woodlands. Notably, cedars are heavy consumers of water; a single plant can guzzle up to thirty gallons a day.
Prescribed burning on the Switzer Ranch is a family affair that typically takes place in the springtime when the humidity is high and the wind and temperature are low. The crew of family, friends, and neighbors start by spraying a line of water, called a wet line, next to the mowed perimeter to ensure the fire stays contained. Then, drip torches kiss the dry grass, and the fire ignites. These prescribed burns are cooler and more contained than historical wildfires, but still prove effective.
Once the burn is complete, water from a truck is sprayed to extinguish the flames, and the crew debriefs. Despite the excitement, this is a practice that must carefully be executed to ensure the fire does not get out of control and that no one gets hurt. After several days, new green shoots of grass start to emerge through the charred black grounds, showing signs of a regenerated prairie. With courage and careful planning, the Switzers have been able to bring fire back to the landscape successfully.
In an interview in 2015, Adam Switzer said, “We’ve learned a lot in the last six years burning…We’ve learned a lot of the positive effects it has on our rangeland and some negative things. Some negative things are when we do this big burn and we get the spring winds, the sands gonna blow and it’s gonna look tough….but in the end, I think it’s well worth it.”
When I spoke with Sarah Sortum, Adam Switzer’s sister, she made an interesting point about why she thinks using fire as a management technique in the Sandhills is not the norm. She noted that historically because there was so much sand and not as much grass as there is today, the first settlers in the Sandhills were a little more “justified” to fear the possible effects of what fire would do to the landscape. Over the years, the Sandhills have changed, and they now have more biomass than ever before. Fire is not ingrained in Sandhills ranching culture but today with the invasion of the Eastern redcedar, that is starting to change.
Visual data showing what happens after a prescribed burn can be a critical tool for research and education. Chris Helzer, the Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science in Nebraska, has had time-lapse cameras watching the regeneration of prairie after the Fairfield Creek Fire raged across the landscape in late July of 2012 on the Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve (NVP) in northeast Nebraska. This large wildfire burned almost 67,000 acres of the NVP’s property.
The imagery from the time-lapse cameras was rather undramatic and showed that the landscape bounced back quickly after the wildfire which was followed by a severe two-year drought. Time-lapse technology can be used to monitor change over time and show people how complex processes work by pairing physical and visual data.
“We’ve used the time-lapse images to help people see how resilient Nebraska’s ecosystems are, even in the face of dramatic events,” Helzer said. “Many people love the Niobrara Valley and the Preserve, and were worried about how or whether it would recover. Being able to tell a visual story of resilience and recovery was very comforting to those folks, and also helped illustrate the processes by which ecosystems respond to fire. In addition, we were able to add visuals to the stories scientists were telling with their data. The most important of those was probably the very quick and complete recovery of the Sandhills grassland vegetation within just a year or two after the fire.”.
Through my curiosity, I placed a time-lapse camera on a recently prescribed burned piece of land on the Switzer Ranch. My goal was to see if there was a difference in vegetative response from a wildfire verses a prescribed burn. This video shows the seasons change and how a prescribed burn impacts the landscape over a year of time which in the end shows little drama as the grass readily comes back without issue.
Ultimately, the resilience of the Sandhills is astounding, and fire is now a critical tool for management. In the past decade, ranchers and land managers throughout the Sandhills have slowly been integrating the practice of prescribed burning back onto the landscape. With the rapid encroachment of the Eastern redcedar, the Sandhills are under threat. Once it was thought that Eastern redcedar would not survive in the Sandhills, but the cedars are proving to spread and encroach with vigor. If cedars continue to invade, the miles of rolling waves of grass may cease to be what they are today. The sweet songs of the grassland birds will go quiet unless fire becomes part of the management of this region again.
To read more about fire in the Sandhills, read Sarah Sortum’s personal take about why their family chooses to use fire as a management technique: http://plattebasintimelapse.com/2015/03/burning-prairie/