§ The Niobrara River wends along the north flank of the Sandhills. Trees flourish in the floodplain and amid the deep if gentle embankments. But to call the Niobrara Valley simply a gallery forest amid the Plains is to dismiss the Smithsonian is just a museum. More than any other locale it claims a biotic intersection of north, south, east, and west.
The river crosses the traditional divide between humid east and arid west. It marks the western limit of 83 eastern species and the eastern limit of 47 western. It contains a sampling of the Rocky Mountain biota, including ponderosa pine and juniper; but the bottomlands grow American elm, bur oak, ash, and other eastern deciduous species. All of these species belong with the biota of southern North America. On the north-facing slopes of the valley, the biota of northern North America – elements of the boreal forest – take root. All three variants of Great Plains prairie – short, mixed, and tall – thrive in local niches. The Niobrara has both aspen and birch, club mosses and serviceberry, little bluestem and grama.
All this is well known and is why the valley has been protected. Less well appreciated is how the Niobrara marks an intellectual and institutional crossways of conservation almost as complex. Free-range bison mingle with herded cattle; private land with public; preservation with profit. The interaction of natural conditions and human land use places the Niobrara squarely at the center of the Great Plains matrix for fire. The biota argues for burning. The history of settlement testifies to fire exclusion. Contemporary management wends between the cliffs of national and local interests, the fear of fire wild and the promise of fire prescribed, the power of fire to catalyze a more robust landscape and the need to restore a fragile one.
§ The bison and Plains Indians left by the 1870s. Cattle and ranchers moved in. The fire regime of the landscape jostled into new forms, but driven by the exclusion of free-burning fire and the morphing of slow combustion from a variety of indigenous grazers into a singular pattern imposed by domestic cattle. As that economy sagged, old ranchers died out, and proposals for a dam arose, the Nature Conservancy intervened to commence the modern era in which the primary values of the valley ceased to center on commodities and the narrative no longer continued the saga of pioneering.
In response at the Niobrara all levels of ownership and governance with an interest in conservation converged. In 1980 TNC purchased two major ranches, and in 1985 began replacing cattle with bison. A decade later it added more ranches to make the 58,000-acre Niobrara Valley Preserve. The State of Nebraska acquired a park (at Smith Falls) and three wildlife management areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service anchored the upstream valley, where the Minnechaduza Creek joins the Niobrara, with its Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. The main valley remained at risk, however, until 1991 when Congress included 76 miles of the Niobrara within the National Wild and Scenic River System under the administration of the National Park Service. To expand the range of protection the Nature Conservancy negotiated conservation easements with several ranchers on the north slope; the Preserve proper helped pay for itself by leasing many uplands south of the valley for cattle. The rest of the landscape remained in private hands, some for ranching, some for recreational use.
Each of these landholdings had responsibility for fire management, and one might expect that fire management would emulate the pastiche of land ownership; and it has. The only force of any power are the VFDs of the surrounding communities, notably Valentine, Johnstown, and Ainsworth. They are, of course, volunteers: their mission is suppression, and they have little interest or time to engage with a full-spectrum of fire management projects. One might expect that the federal agencies could call up sufficient resources, and they can, although not in time or in quantities adequate to their perceived needs. TNC has considerable fire expertise, but only a tiny staff at the preserve, insufficient to conduct operations of any complexity. Both the feds and TNC, moreover, have to meet NWCG standards to conduct either fire fighting or fire lighting. The local ranchers who traditionally assisted (two of whom were hired to manage the cattle and bison herds) did not qualify, and neither did the VFDs, which reduced capacity even further. In 2006 the Niobrara Valley Prescribed Fire Association was organized, which included fully furnished burn trailers from Pheasants Forever; but since members were not trained to NWCG standards, neither the feds nor TNC could use them.
Fire management could only succeed if the various agencies pooled resources. But there are fewer staff than meet the eye, and collecting them under a common cause, particularly one not fully accepted by all residents, makes prescribed fire difficult. Even TNC, which needs to burn (and is avid to do so), has to request permits from the local VFD chief, and if the burn lies within a quarter mile of the Niobrara River, from the National Park Service as well. This restricts the slickest solution to controlling a burn: to drive the flames into the river. The only easily accepted fire, perversely, is wildfire.
§ There is little doubt that fire was frequent in pre-settlement times – how could it be otherwise?; that it burned across seasons; and that its range has shrunk over the past century.
Prairie fires were a common entry in settler chronicles. The seasonal mix of burning, however, prevented one type of fire from dominating; and the loss of that scale and diversity is what best characterizes the shift in fire regime that has occurred since. Studies of fire-scarred pine nearby yield an average return interval from 1857-1900 of four years, from 1901-1950 of five years, and from 1951-1985 of six years. That’s a pretty rapid historic return and only a slight shift compared to the collapse typical of the Plains overall. Throughout, fires continued from lightning and accident. In 2006 a broken powerline sent fire roaring into Valentine with the loss of 12 houses.[i]
Yet the ecological effects of fire’s removal are clearly apparent. Cool-season grasses have invaded; forbs have diminished; and trees – especially the weedy eastern red cedar – have spread widely. Photos of the Niobrara Valley taken a century ago show patchy woods in what today are continuous and dense mixed forests. Trees have spilled over the valley rim like a biotic river overflowing its levees. The exact dynamics are tricky since the reckoning must factor in the altered grazing regimes, for the mix of cattle and bison interact with burned prairie differently and have served as a fulcrum for fire.
The preserve introduced bison and burning in 1985. The bison have grown to 600 head split into an east and west herd. The burns were initially timid and tiny, many at night to avoid escapes and not alarm neighbors. While the bison hit the fresh grass hard, they moved, and many of the forbs remained to help hold the soil. Because of the complexity of the scene, the window for burning is small and local VFD chiefs are quick to declare burn bans when conditions favor hot fires; but these are often what the preserve needs to sweep away its invasive woody weeds. Cattle complicate the scene in another way because the summer grazing is conducted under lease (about 1,800 cow-calf pairs), and the preserve must guarantee adequate forage or find alternative pastures while keeping the cattle off the fresh burns. Ideally, fire management would like to burn 6,000-8,000 acres a year on a 4-5 year rotation. In practice, it burns an average of 1,000-1,100 acres.
Nothing unusual in those numbers – no one burns as much as they want, and the preserve does better than most and has made burning a culture. The reasons behind the slippage are the common ones. Put simply, the Plains disperse what management needs concentrated. While the preserve holds many pieces, it also stretches over 26 miles, which means a lot of perimeter to hold. The best compromise at present is to host two-week burning programs in the spring for fire training and qualification renewal and burn every day conditions permit. The cadres come from throughout the region and across agencies. In a curious way, it’s the institutional equivalent of migrant workers who in old days harvested wheat and rounded up cattle, and in a weird way, of patch burning and grazing, with fire staff taking the place of bison except they seek out the old grasses rather than the new.
§ Environmentalists rightly celebrate biodiversity and note the need for managing on a landscape scale. Strategists of contemporary fire management likewise argue that scale is critical: fire is too complicated and costly for boutique burning and needs space to create a full range of outcomes and buffer against escapes. The transactional costs of a small burn are often the same as for a large one. The only way to establish that scale of landscape needed and to muster the capacity to operate is through cooperation with neighbors or a national pool. In principle, institutional diversity could complement biodiversity.
It doesn’t often work that way. Complex landscapes require complicated programs; there is no single practice or restored process that will satisfy all the parts; each need is balanced against the others. So, too, diverse communities, while they can collectively amass the mind and muscle to do fire, require immense investments of attention to meet the particular desires of shareholders. Far easier is the circumstance with a single landowner, or public lands even when administered by several agencies. Fire management communities don’t self-organize into existence. But without them the only fire to do the ecological work is wildfire, which is a risky card to play in a high-stakes game of ecological integrity and the biodiversity of small preserves.
The burning goes on. The Niobrara Valley remains equally at a crossroads of continental ecology and the complex matrix by which a modern society must exercise stewardship over it. If it holds bits of a biota from all the cardinal points, so it concentrates managerial concerns from all points. From the west (as it were): restrictions on burning, from local fears to national standards. From the east: the need to muster capacity for prescribed fire, to tweak fire organizations founded on suppression to adapt to prescription burning. From the north: problems of seasonal timing and scales of burning. From the south: the integration of fire with fauna.
What makes the Niobrara Valley ecologically special is its capacity to amalgamate species whose biotic hearth lies elsewhere. Here they have gathered, as if by a process of ecological stream capture from distinct watersheds. But that varied ecology is matched by an administrative landscape of equal diversity, each piece of which has its thematic core elsewhere. Whether, at the Niobrara, those pieces can come together as a functioning whole or instead default into a community of convenience will determine what kind of fire the Valley will experience in the decades to come.
April 2012 / [pdf]