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Last spring, Kansas prairie fires raised questions about air quality in Nebraska as winds carried smoky haze into Omaha and Lincoln. Schools in both metropolitan areas canceled planned sporting activities, and city officials urged residents to stay indoors.

As we approach another spring grazing season, it is important to understand why farmers and ranchers purposefully burn their pastures. Controlled fires are an essential tool for sustainable forestry and prairie restoration, and both the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service promote prescribed burning as a best management practice.

Prescribed burning is the process of applying fire to a predetermined area, under specific environmental conditions, to achieve a desired outcome. This unique tool is used throughout the United States to manage the health of various ecosystems, including in parts of Appalachia, the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest.

Farmers and ranchers in Nebraska use controlled burns to maintain the health of the native landscape. Controlling the invasion of nonnative weeds, increasing plant diversity, ensuring healthy pastures for grazing cattle and enhancing wildlife habitat are just a few examples of how prescribed burns help restore the land in Nebraska.

Good range management through prescribed burns may also reduce the incidence of wildfires, such as the devastating wind-driven fires that swept across Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas this past month.

Fire management has also proven an essential player in helping eradicate what conservation experts describe as one of the greatest threats to Nebraska's natural resources. Since 2005, the Nebraska Forest Service has documented the transition of over 300,000 acres of grassland to redcedar forest, taxing water resources, threatening grassland-dependent nesting birds and reducing grazing capacity for livestock. According to researchers at the University of Nebraska, a 75 percent reduction in livestock potential will occur throughout the Great Plains once grassland is fully converted to juniper woodland.

NRCS and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission are proactively using fire for cedar control through the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project. This special initiative uses federal funding to work with landowners in designated redcedar areas, such as the biologically unique Loess Canyons of central Nebraska.

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency issued guidance to state air agencies on how to differentiate and exclude controlled burns from air quality monitoring data. This extraordinary step marks the first time that the EPA has officially recognized the role of fire management in agriculture. Such recognition by the federal agency responsible for our nation's air quality strengthens its legitimacy.

In preparation for this spring's prescribed fire season, Kansas researchers developed a Flint Hills smoke management website to help farmers and ranchers identify the optimal time for burning in terms of weather and air quality. The website is an attempt to balance the need for prescribed fire in the Flint Hills with the need for clean air in downwind communities. Landowners can view a daily map, which details the potential contributions to major cities. Both Omaha and Lincoln are listed on the map.

Whether you live in Lincoln or Broken Bow, all Nebraskans should understand the reasons why farmers and ranchers use controlled burns. A few smoky days are a small price to pay for ensuring the ecological health and future of our nation's prairies.

Barb Cooksley is past president of Nebraska Cattlemen, a rancher and former Soil Conservation Service employee.

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