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Fire – Fear not! A tool to enhance our rangelands

By Matea Gordon Published on 01 March 2021

Matea Gordon is a student from Whitewood, South Dakota, and the winner of the 2021 American Forage and Grassland Council youth essay contest, 10th to 12th grade division.

Huge orange flames and billowing black smoke – it's a fire on the land! Hearing those words, most of us probably feel fear for our families and our homes, and for our livestock and our land. We've all seen the scary images of wildfires burning out of control. No one wants to experience that. But, do these events mean all fire is bad for the land?

Let's take a closer look at "prescribed fires" as a land management tool.

Prescribed fire is a planned fire, and its purpose is to help meet specific land management objectives. Consideration is given to the safety of the public, and if conditions are not safe, the fire will not be set.

Most commonly, we hear about prescribed burns being used in forested areas, where low-intensity fires can help reduce dead material and fuel loads in the understory of the forest.

But, can fire be beneficial on rangelands? Yes! Similar to forest ecosystems, a prescribed fire in early spring can help remove dense plant material and promote new growth of grasses desirable to livestock and wildlife. And, research in Montana has shown fire is better than mowing for restoring soil health and producing grass with more nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients for cattle.

Another reason fire is beneficial is to help prevent invasive species, like the Eastern Red Cedar tree, from spreading and taking away valuable grazing lands. Research on the Konza Prairie in the Kansas Flint Hills identified that if fire was excluded from the land, the tallgrass prairie would transform into a cedar forest in as little as 30 years. This would remove thousands of acres of valuable livestock grazing and wildlife habitat.

So there are two sides to the fire story: the scary wildfires and the prescribed burns to manage the land. But how does the public feel about prescribed fire?

That was the question 1 asked for my FFA agriscience fair project. Working with the Mid-Missouri Prescribed Burn Association in my home state of South Dakota, I conducted an on line survey and had 110 people respond. The majority were from South Dakota; 69% were male and 31% were female. They represented a cross-section of ages from age 19 to over age 70. My findings were:

  • 86% expressed concern over cedar tree encroachment into the grasslands along the Missouri River.
  • When asked if prescribed burning would be used in their county or neighboring county, 91% said they were supportive of the use of prescribed burning, and 97% indicated they were supportive of using prescribed fire on public lands such as national forests.
  • Of the landowners responding to the survey, 47 individuals said they would be willing to try this practice on their land.

From the survey responses, I believe most South Dakotans – both rural and urban – do understand that prescribed burns can be a beneficial land management tool. We in agriculture need to continue to help more audiences learn that prescribed fire is important to keep our forests and rangelands productive for future generations.  end mark