Prescribed Fire Program Removes Trees and Improves Grasslands

A grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust has helped professional wildland firefighters hone their skills while also helping Central Loess Hills landowners improve the quality of their grazing lands – and grassland bird habitat.

For over a century, strong feelings about wildfire led to suppression and prevention of naturally occurring fires across Nebraska. This suited human needs in the short-term, but the absence of fire as a regular part of the grassland ecosystem altered wildlife habitat and reduced the productivity of grazing lands by allowing the spread of fire-intolerant plant species. By 2014, over eleven percent of Central Loess Hills grasslands had been invaded by eastern red cedar trees.

Prescribed fire is a successful tool for controlling eastern red cedar. However, most prescribed fires are under 100 acres in size. In order to stay ahead of the invasion in the Central Loess Hills, fires would need to be conducted on a much larger scale, and with greater effectiveness.

Since 2010, the Fire Learning Network’s Prescribed Fire Training Exchange has operated in the Central Loess Hills to train professional wildland firefighters through prescribed fire scenarios on private land. The program had the added benefit of offering prescribed burns to willing landowners.

There was, however, room for improvement. Dense patches of mature trees proved difficult to burn, but two pre-treatments have been effective: 1) deferred grazing, which increases fuel availability; and 2) strategic cutting of mature trees which, after drying, are positioned near dense stands. Both of these techniques, though, are costly.

A $302,500 grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust has helped defray the costs of deferred grazing and tree cutting over a three-year period, thus improving the effectiveness of prescribed fire in the Central Loess Hills. The grant also provided for firebreak preparation and the purchase of equipment, as well as communication efforts to inform landowners of this opportunity.

Matching contributions came from participating landowners, wildland firefighters, the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, and Pheasants Forever.

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