One of the cornerstones of the RWBJV partnership is its ability to find unique solutions to address on-the-ground conservation bottlenecks. The invasion of grasslands by Eastern Red Cedar (ERC) is one of most pressing threats to grassland nesting birds in the RWBJV administrative area. This is troubling since grassland obligates are experiencing the steepest decline of all bird guilds, and the RWBJV is home to some of the largest remnant grasslands in the Great Plains. Grassland ecologists and landowners alike recognize prescribed fire as one of the most cost-effective management tools. The RWBJV partnership has developed three unique initiatives to increase prescribed fire on the landscape in two grassland dominated Geographic Focus Ares; Sandhills and Central Loess Hills.
In the Central Sandhills the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is closely working with the Sandhills Task Force, Volunteer Fire Departments, and local landowners to develop a Flagship Prescribed Fire Partnership. This grassroots partnership has leveraged financial resources and programmatic flexibility through the USFS and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to implement prescribed fire on both USFS lands and private lands. To support this partnership the USFS staff secured a Joint Chief’s grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). To compliment this funding the RWBJV received a NFWF grant. The NFWF funding allowed the USFS to extend appointments of seasonal fire staff beyond the traditional eight-month tour of duty. As a result, USFS fire staff were able to complete normal duties on USFS lands and conduct prescribed fire on private lands. The focus of prescribed fire on private lands has been on neighbors and permittees associated with the Bessey and McKelvie Ranger Districts. The USFS bought the additional equipment to match the NFWF grant. The equipment was used to implement prescribed fire on both public and private lands. This leveraged approach resulted in eight burn plans developed for private lands (5,150 acres) with 95% of these acres being burned (4,845 acres). This was 843 acres above the acreage goals outlined in the NFWF grant for private lands. At each prescribed burn on private land, the landowner was the burn boss, with USFS staff and equipment supporting the activities. At many of these prescribed burns, the landowner had volunteer fire departments in the form of neighbors and other family members on-site assisting with the prescribed fire. This made each of these prescribed fires a classroom where private landowners could learn and participate in safe implementation of prescribed fire. The same USFS staff that assisted with the prescribed fire on private lands also treated 12,725 acres on USFS lands. This was 1,725 more acres than targeted in the NFWF grant. In total, the Flagship Prescribed Fire Partnership was a success with 17,600 acres treated over the three-year NFWF grant that ended in 2019.
Capacity, comfort, and experience implementing prescribed fire are all bottlenecks that prevent more fire from being used in resource management. In the Central Sandhills, this bottleneck was addressed by USFS staff. These individuals wrote burn plans and assisted with prescribed fire on private lands. In the Eastern Sandhills, the RWBJV partners developed a different strategy. For this region, the partners leveraged funds to hire burn boss through The Nature Conservancy (TNC). This position has a statewide purview, but its focus is on TNC’s Niobrara Valley Preserve and private lands in the Eastern Sandhills. To fund this position, RWBJV partners leveraged grants from the Nebraska Environmental Trust (NET) and NFWF. TNC was awarded the NET grant and holds the burn boss position. The RWBJV partnership received the matching funds through the NFWF. In 2019, the TNC Burn Boss worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Pheasants Forever (PF), Sandhills Task Force, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife to identify landowners that are interested in implementing prescribed fire. Most of these individuals had implemented mechanical removal of ERC, but recognized that follow-up treatments were needed to stay ahead of ERC reinvasion. The TNC Burn Boss worked with these landowners to develop burn plans, connect landowners with fire fighters, volunteers, fire equipment and implement seven prescribed burns (3,100 acres), with five of these being on private lands in the Eastern Sandhills (1,300 acres).
The Sandhills are a grassland-dominated landscape, while the Central Loess Hills are a patchwork of sloping hills, playa wetlands, and flat tablelands which are generally cropped. Many producers in this landscape have diversified operations that include both row-crop and livestock production elements. Row-crop production often takes precedence in these operations. As a result, grassland management becomes a lower priority. To support landscape scale grassland management for healthier grasslands and broader control of ERC, the Central Loess Hills Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) was established in 2009. Although there are multiple TREX programs throughout North America that operate under the goal of adding prescribed fire capacity, the Central Loess Hills TREX is unique as it is focused exclusively on private lands. The goal of the Central Loess Hills TREX is to implement large-scale fire to the landscape, with an annual target of delivering a minimum of 2,000 acres of contiguous prescribed fire on private lands. To meet this target, a PF biologist works with multiple adjacent landowners to develop a large-scale cross boundary burn plan. This plan details multiple access points between properties, shared firebreaks, and ecological objectives to be met (e.g., fine fuel consumption and ERC mortality rates). Funding provided by the NET to the RWBJV allows professional wildland fire practitioners from around the world to attend the two-week Central Loess Hills TREX event in order to advance their fireline qualifications. As a result of the Central Loess Hills TREX, these individuals gain invaluable experience and learn prescribed fire tactics and planning theories that can be used back at their home units. The wildland fire practitioners are not the only ones that gain experience during the Central Loess Hills TREX. Landowners and area volunteer fire departments are invited and encouraged to participate and train alongside the professional wildland fire practitioners during this intensive, interactive classroom event. To date, the Central Loess Hills TREX has resulted in over 30,000 acres of direct prescribed fire delivery in the central Nebraska landscape since the program’s inception. The Central Loess Hills TREX program also sponsors a large fire incentive program for area landowners, which offers a financial incentive for conducting prescribed fires of at least 500 acres in size on their own. This opportunity creates a unique bridge from relying on professional wildland fire practitioners during the formal Central Loess Hills TREX event toward developing more local capacity, competency and experience. The large fire incentive program annually adds an additional impact of 2,500 acres of fire delivery to the Central Loess Hills TREX.
I greatly appreciate the leadership, effort, and commitment that Ben Wheeler (PF), Chad Bladow (TNC), and Tedd Teahon (USFS) have invested to make prescribed fire a reality on the landscape. Looking forward to the next three years and building off the successes of these endeavors.