From Iowa Public Radio (May Mayer):
“Fire is a critical component to the landscape,” says Jesse Nippert, a professor at Kansas State, who is also the lead scientist for the Konza Prairie Long Term Ecological Research project, “because without fire, the grasses lose their dominance. Like, if you stopped burning this, the grasses would start to disappear.” Shrubs and eventually trees would take over.
Fire, climate and grazing are the primary drivers of the prairie ecosystem, Nippert says.
For decades, he and other scientists have probed the prairie, asking about its plants, animals, microbes and soil. What they learn can influence how we grow food and how the region adapts to a changing climate.
Controlling when, and how often, fire comes through certain sections of the prairie allows scientists to explore its impacts and importance. To understand climate, they have to get a bit more creative.
Leaving behind a perfect black polygon of scorched earth when the fire fizzles out, Nippert climbs into a Jeep and bounces up and down rutted gravel roads to a different section of prairie that wasn’t burned on this day.
“One of the climate change predictions for this region really wasn’t a change in total annual amount of precipitation,” Nippert says. “It was this idea that when it rains, it’s gonna be a bigger rain event, and then in between them we’ll remove a lot of those smaller rain events.”
He and his colleagues erect structures with metal tubing and plastic sheets that let them simulate those trends experimentally on certain plots.
“Even though they got the exact same amount of total water, how you package that water and deliver it matters,” Nippert says.
Lessons from the Dust Bowl
That’s something farmers in the Midwest are already experiencing. Heavy spring rains might delay or prevent them from planting their crops. Then it can dry up for weeks until a sudden heavy rain hits the dry soil. (Kansas State has an interactive map showing changes in precipitation by county over time here.)
Nippert’s colleague Melinda Smith, from Colorado State University, conducts prairie ecosystem research in Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. Her work on Konza simulated drought conditions, mimicking the hot, dry years of the 1930s.
“What we were able to do is just pretty much replicate what happened during the Dust Bowl, but do it experimentally,” Smith says. “And we were able to see the same kind of responses.”
Those included the loss of certain plants and increasing amounts of others. Smith points to blue grama grasses, which are normally found at sites farther west than Konza but showed up here after her experiment.
“The only reason they’re in those plots is because we droughted them,” she says. “The fact that we could get even such a small-scale conversion of the [plant] community—it took several years for that to occur, but it did occur within the timeframe of our drought experiment—suggests to me that it could occur at a larger scale. And it was a surprising outcome.”
During the Dust Bowl, precious soil blew away, but the natural ecosystem of native plants recovered within about 20 years.
“The species that live here in the Great Plains, these native species, are tremendously resilient,” Nippert says. The farming practices of the early 20th century, however, were not sustainable.
In 1935, partially in response to the devastation of the Dust Bowl, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Soil Conservation Act, which led to the creation of soil and water conservation districts. Still in action today, these groups promote practices such as reducing tillage, which keeps more soil in place…
Protecting cropland with prairie
“The idea was, can we be really smart about reintegrating Iowa’s native ecosystem to try to achieve our goals, as a state, for clean water and building soils and maintaining our native, wildlife populations in a way that had as little impact on the agricultural portions of the landscape as possible?” says Iowa State’s Lisa Schulte Moore, a member of the team that spent more than a decade developing prairie strips, small patches of native grasses and flowers integrated into farmland. The answer was an unqualified yes.
Schulte Moore says putting 10 percent of a field into prairie strips keeps 95 percent of the soil in place. The strips contain a mix of different native plant species, which are appropriate for the specific location.
“So if you have a cool year, if you have a wet year, if you have a drought year, that diversity conveys resilience,” Schulte Moore says. “You have some of those plants that are going to do well regardless of the kind of weather conditions that Mother Nature is throwing at it.”
Some of the prairie plants have stiff stems, too, which help protect the land when those intense rain events pour down because they slow the movement of the water. The prairie plants also have characteristic deep roots, which continue to grow throughout the year, year after year.
“You have biological function happening all year long that you just don’t in an annual system,” like row crops, Schulte Moore says.
Prairie strips proved so effective that they caught the attention both of farmers eager to try them and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The 2018 farm bill added prairie strips to the Conservation Reserve Program, which is one of the federal government’s biggest efforts to improve the environmental quality of agricultural lands.
Still, farming in the Great Plains remains largely dependent upon annual monocultures: plants grown from seed each year, typically across wide swaths of land that may only rotate between two or possibly three crops.
From The Nature Conservancy (Chris Helzer):
If You Play With Fire…
There’s nothing playful about safe and effective prescribed burning. Too many things can go wrong to take it lightly. Sometimes, I think people see prescribed fire as something that needs to be done to maintain prairies, but they can’t necessarily point to specific objectives for a particular fire. Nor can they describe what kind of burning (season, intensity, size, ignition pattern) is needed to achieve those objectives. Falling into the trap of burning because it seems like the right thing to do leads to two big risks. First, there’s a good chance that the fires will not be conducted in a way (or at the right time of year) that do much good – and could even be counterproductive. Second, because prescribed fire can be a hazardous activity, conducting one without clearly defined reasons means taking big risks for no good reason.
We’ve completed two prescribed fires so far this spring. As always, we spend way more time planning our fires than implementing them. That planning starts with setting clear ecological objectives (defining why we’re burning in the first place) which dictate the location, size, season, and even the tactics used during the fire. Once we know what we’re aiming for, we write a burn plan that can help us achieve that in the safest way possible. Our plans detail the kinds of weather conditions and tactics needed to be successful, but also spend a lot of time on contingencies. What will we do if the fire gets away? What does the surrounding landscape offer in terms of safe areas and threats in the case of an escaped fire. How will we respond if someone gets hurt? For me, writing a good burn plan means thinking through all the worst case scenarios. There’s nothing fun about it.
Unfortunately, even after all that planning, things still go wrong. Last spring, I wrote about a burn we did in which we ran into repeated equipment issues, and had to shut down for a while until we could get re-equipped and complete the burn. In another fire last year, I overestimated the strength of our blackline containing the fire, and the wind-driven head fire jumped it in one place, forcing us to quickly chase it down. This spring, our first prescribed burn started out well, but the wind came up sooner than had been forecast, and we shut the fire down because a Red Flag Warning was issued. In all of those cases, there were no serious repercussions, and our training and planning helped us deal effectively with unexpected circumstances. Because we’d planned for each contingency, everyone knew how to react when the time came. No property was damaged and no one got hurt.
The threat of injury is what makes prescribed fire especially stressful for me. Between potential equipment mishaps and quickly-changing weather and fire conditions, there are numerous opportunities for someone to get hurt. So far, I’ve never had anyone get injured on a fire I’ve been a part of, but that fortunate record certainly isn’t making me complacent. As if I needed a reminder of the danger, one of our crew was helping a partner organization with a fire last week and suffered some slight burns on his neck and face while trying to extinguish a drip torch. After trying and failing to smother the flame at the tip of the torch with a gloved hand (per protocol) the crew member then tried to blow the flame out, and some of the burning torch fuel splattered onto the cotton bandana around his neck. Before he could get the bandana off of his head, he suffered small burns in several places. After a quick trip to a nearby medical clinic, he was fine – though he had to shave off the remainder of his singed beard.
It appears there were several things that contributed to the torch incident, possibly including some issues with the torch itself that caused excessive fuel to build up in the torch’s tip, making it particularly difficult to extinguish. After the fire was wrapped up there was considerable discussion about what happened, and hopefully we all learned some things that will make us all safer in the future. Regardless of the cause, however, the aspect of the event that struck me the most was that our crew member was injured doing something he had done hundreds of times before. It’s sobering to know that something as mundane as extinguishing a torch led to injury, and that it could have been much worse than it was.
I am a strong and vocal advocate for the use of prescribed fire to manage both private and public lands. On the other hand, prescribed burning is not a sport, it’s a tool, and it’s a tool that we should employ strategically – not for fun, or without specific objectives in mind. If someone can’t clearly explain what they’re trying to achieve by conducting a particular burn, I don’t know how they can justify taking the risk of dropping a match. In addition, if some doesn’t have a clear and detailed plan for how to ignite and contain a fire, and how to respond when things go wrong, I don’t think they have any business lighting that fire in the first place.
I know people that really enjoy conducting prescribed fires. Frankly, those people make me nervous, especially if they’re in charge. I don’t dislike prescribed burning, and I get a feeling of satisfaction whenever we wrap one up successfully – especially because I can appreciate the ecological benefits of doing so. But while there is active fire on the ground, there’s a knot in my stomach, and that knot subsides slowly, even after the last of the smoke has faded into the sky.
It’s fantastic that the use of prescribed fire is growing among prairie landowners and land managers. More importantly, the greatly increased availability of training and equipment means that we’re not only burning more acres, but we’re also more sophisticated – and hopefully safer – as we do so. However, things will still go wrong. Property will be damaged and people will get hurt. It can happen during even the simplest fires. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t burn. It does, however, mean that we should burn only when it can be done safely and only when we can burn in ways that achieve important objectives. Otherwise, the risk can quickly outweigh the rewards.
Be safe out there…
You may be interested to read these previous posts about prescribed fire:
From KUNC (Luke Runyon):
Water agencies throughout the West are changing their operations during the coronavirus outbreak to make sure cities and farms don’t run dry.
Their responses range from extreme measures to modest adjustments to ensure their most critical workers don’t succumb to the virus.
In San Diego, leadership at the Carlsbad desalination plant asked staff to volunteer for a 21-day isolated stay at the facility. A second set of workers are self-isolating at home to arrive on site for their stay at the treatment plant should the outbreak extend beyond the initial 21-day period.
Many others aren’t taking as drastic a step as asking employees to live at work. The water agency for millions in southern California, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, is scaling back on-site staff and increasing telework capabilities for a portion of its workforce.
In Colorado, two Front Range water providers aren’t to the point of asking workers to house on-site at pumping, treatment or dam sites…
As of now Northern’s operations have continued without interruption, and the agency is preparing for a spring snowmelt runoff likely to ramp up in the next few weeks, Stahla said.
Some water treatment facilities ran with minimal contact among workers even before the threat of coronavirus, said Todd Hartman, a spokesman for Denver Water.
“Water treatment plants readily operate with people spread apart in different sections of the facilities,” Hartman said. “Social distance is also easy to achieve at our dams and reservoirs.”
Some of Denver Water’s critical infrastructure already house year-round caretakers to keep an eye on remote dam operations, Hartman added. That’s also true of the city of Colorado Springs’ Grizzly Reservoir in the mountains outside Aspen.
Editor’s Note: You may sometimes have felt like you “have come down with a virus,” meaning that you became sick from being exposed to something that could have been a virus. In fact, you have a virus – actually, many – all the time. Some viruses cause the common cold, and some are crucial to human survival. New viruses can also emerge, and they typically create illness in humans when they have very recently jumped from another species to humans. As world health leaders try to determine how to respond to the new coronavirus, virus expert Marilyn J. Roossinck answers a few questions.
1. What is a virus?
Defining a virus has been a challenge, because every time we come up with a good definition someone discovers a virus that breaks the rules. Viruses are entities that infect cellular life. They are very diverse. The simplest just have a couple of genes made of RNA or DNA wrapped up in a protein coat. Others have hundreds of genes, more than some bacteria.
All viruses are ultimately parasites. They require a host for replication. They cannot generate their own energy like cells can.
2. Why does a virus make people sick?
When a new human virus disease appears, it is most often because the virus has jumped from a different species into humans. The worst viruses are often the ones that have very recently jumped into the species.
After jumping species, the virus goes through a process of adjustment to its new host. The real challenge, however, is to the host. As it tries to figure out how to adjust to an invasion from something completely new, the immune system overreacts. This is what makes the host sick. It usually isn’t an advantage for the virus to make people sick; it is an accident of the hosts’ immune system overreacting to something it doesn’t recognize.
Viruses that have been in a host for a long time are less likely to cause disease. For example, HIV jumped into humans from wild primates, in whose bodies it wasn’t causing any disease.
Every virus-host relationship is different. In most cases, viruses do not cause any disease, and many are beneficial. For example, in mice a herpes virus prevents infection from the plague bacteria.
3. Why is it so important to know the original source?
If the virus comes from an animal, knowing what that animal is can help break the chain of infection. Knowing the source also helps scientists understand mutations that might have occurred in the virus’ genome. That’s because host-jumping affects the variation in a virus genome. When a virus has been in its host for a long time, the genome is fine-tuned to that host, and mutations are not tolerated.
4. SARS was a formidable foe, and then seemed to disappear. Why?
Measures to contain SARS started early, and they were very successful. The key is to stop the chain of transmission by isolating infected individuals. SARS had a short incubation period; people generally showed symptoms in two to seven days. There were no documented cases of anyone being a source of SARS without showing symptoms.
Stopping the chain of transmission is much more difficult when the incubation time is much longer, or when some people don’t get symptoms at all. This may be the case with the virus causing CoVID-19, so stopping it may take more time.
5. What is the best way to treat viruses?
Viruses don’t respond to antibiotics, and in some cases taking antibiotics can make things worse, because the normal bacteria in the gut are an important part of the immune response. Antiviral drugs can work with some viruses, but the mutation rate of most viruses means that they become resistant to antivirals very quickly.
The best treatment is to give the patient the best tools to allow their own body to fight off the infection. This usually means rest and keeping hydrated. Virus infection can suppress the immune system, so patients should be monitored for secondary infections that might require other treatments. Prevention is important. Sick people need to be isolated, and healthy people need to take precautions.
Most respiratory viruses are not transmitted just by breathing them in from sick people, but by getting them on your hands from tiny droplets that sick people distribute by coughing or sneezing, and then touching your face. Good hand-washing is important!
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From The High Country News [March 24, 2020] (Craig Childs):
People have been trying to get outdoors during this COVID-19 pandemic, and I don’t blame them. Without fresh air to breathe, clear sunlight or mist on our eyelids, I don’t think we can remain sane. And we need a sane population. Especially now.
All over the country, beaches and parks are closed, warning tape is wrapped around playgrounds. People are trying to get out, but not finding any place to go to. Central Park remains open, and New York City has been asked by its mayor to close certain streets to vehicles so people can get out and walk. In the San Francisco Bay area, where shelter-in-place orders are in effect, residents are still being told that parks are open and to go enjoy them — with certain caveats: The restrooms aren’t open, and neither are the trashcans, and don’t hike in groups.
In the West, we’ve got plenty of space. But are we supposed to be using it? We’re hearing different messages. There’s been a pushback against recreating on public lands, mostly from gateway communities receiving visitors they don’t want, even as people are being encouraged to enjoy parks and open spaces where they can keep a safe distance from others. Most national parks remain open, and entry fees have been waived.
So which is it? Stay indoors, or go outside? If you go out for a walk, you might hear someone shouting at you from a window, “What don’t you understand about just stay home?”
Moab was overwhelmed by tourists — a madhouse, I’m told, which is significant when you hear it from a Moab local. Last week, it became too much, and all tourist services were closed down. Mayor Emily Niehaus announced, “Moab is asking people to please stay in their home community.” The Southeast Utah Health Department halted visitor recreation, restaurants were closed or limited to curbside, camping and hotels across multiple counties were closed to non-locals, and visitors centers have shut down. Everybody, go home. Is home restricted to the indoors, or does it include the spaces around you?
I believe in the right to be outside, but at this moment it shouldn’t be exercised through visitor centers and bottlenecks. Forget the parks; seek out the spaces in between, the backyards and alleys. It’s a great time to explore an irrigation ditch or the woods at the edge of town — to see what’s around you. Be as local as you can. If you’re heading to Red Mountain Pass to ski between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado, and you have out-of-county plates, the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office will place a yellow slip on your windshield reading, “San Juan County Colorado is enacting a LOCALS ONLY order until further notice due to the COVID-19 Virus crisis.” Further down the slip, it notes, “Failure to comply with this order will result in charges with the potential of 1 year in prison, and a $1,000 fine.”
In southwest Colorado, as in much of the West, we’re fortunate to live in a nest of public lands with few trails or kiosks, mostly dirt roads with random pullouts — the spaces managed by the Bureau of Land Management. When I hear “shelter in place,” I think of this place. How far does that legally, ethically extend?
A couple of days ago, my gal and I met up with two friends, another couple sheltering at home, and drove separately to a rock scarp near where we live. We kept 6 feet or more between us at all times, handing nothing back and forth without an antibacterial wipe. The air we breathed was cavernous, a sandstone canyon without a trail or a sign, a place where you’d rarely see footprints. For half a day, we scrambled over boulders and took pictures of rock and sky. I took more caution than I normally would, limiting the risk, because you don’t want to take any resources from rescue workers who already have tough jobs to do. On our hike, we recounted the weeks since we’d seen each other last, catching up on the stories under the vault of the sky. This, I believe, is sanity. As far as I’ve heard, what we did is neither illegal or unhealthy. Perhaps it’s not unethical, either.
I realize not everybody can do this; the out-of-doors comes in degrees. Sometimes just standing on a sidewalk and staring into the sky makes a world of difference.
Currently, federal land agencies, including the National Park Service, defer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for social-distancing guidelines. But for those wondering about going out farther than their own back-forty, Colorado Parks and Wildlife put out simple guidelines reflecting outdoor recommendations from groups and agencies around the West.
In a nutshell:
If you are sick, stay home. Keep a social distance from others. Avoid high-risk or remote activities. Announce your presence to others. Stay regional. Avoid times and places of high use. Practice good hand hygiene. Be kind. Say hi.
A key bullet point is “stay regional.” How big is a region? Where do you usually travel for groceries? In some of these big Western counties, a hundred miles or more can be your region. In Denver, I figure this means your city and the land immediately around it; Front Range residents are advised to avoid traveling to the high country or to small mountain communities closed to visitors. In the Pacific Northwest, permits are still being given for the Pacific Crest Trail. Online battles are raging between those leaving the trail — who are being called “quitters” — and those staying on it, who are being accused of selfishly making coronavirus and its host of difficulties worse.
In other words, there’s no official definition. One good answer came from a friend in Trinidad, Colorado: “If someone gets to a spot and there are a bunch of people there, you should immediately go somewhere else.”
I was probably one of the last groups to leave the southeast Utah backcountry late last week. I came out with participants in a wilderness archaeology program. We traveled through the town of Bluff to see what was happening, and we found a pandemic in progress: People were telling us to go home, to stay put in Utah, to go back to the wilderness where we’d been living happily for the last five days. Airplanes were still flying, so civilization was still intact. But answers were hard to find. We all headed back home, which sent us in every direction but kept us out of the hair of the locals, which seems to be the major issue. Small gateway communities do not need the strain on their groceries, gas or medical services.
If you’re looking for justification to take a trip to the backcountry, leaving your area to go through someone else’s, this isn’t it. Stay in your home terrain. If where you live has backcountry wrapped around it, or a trail that’s open and uncrowded, or just some woods to walk through, I consider that an extension of home. It may not be true for most of us, but many live out here on the margins. And all of us, I hope, can reach the outdoors in some form, because sanity is also necessary for health.
Craig Childs writes about adventure, wilderness, and science. Craig’s newest book, Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America, explores the arrivals of humans into a new hemisphere during the late Pleistocene. Craig teaches writing at the University of Alaska and in the Mountainview MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University and lives off the grid in western Colorado. Email High Country News at email@example.com.
The response to COVID-19 has changed many things, but the water delivered by the nation’s water utilities is safe to drink.
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After certifying 1,700 Bicycle-Friendly Drivers in 2019, Bicycle Colorado is excited to continue to support drivers through our first virtual course. We will cover laws and safe practices for both road users, how to navigate on-street bicycle infrastructure and how to avoid common crashes between drivers and bicyclists. At the end of the webinar, we will complete an exam and passing participants will receive a certificate to demonstrate their new knowledge.
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