The Environment


Prairie Fire Newspaper went on hiatus after the publication of the September 2015 issue. It may return one of these days but until then we will continue to host all of our archived content for your reading pleasure. Many of the articles have held up well over the years. Please contact us if you have any questions, thoughts, or an interest in helping return Prairie Fire to production. We can also be found on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you to all our readers, contributors, and supporters - the quality of Prairie Fire was a reflection of how many people it touched (touches).

Chuckleheads and the Art of Nonfishing

By Jack Phillips

On family outings in the 1960s curious bystanders watched my father fish. I thought his methods were normal; didn’t everyone practice catch-and release fly-fishing in Nebraska? In shallow, turgid rivers, for catfish? With barbless hooks? Sure, Nebraska had fly fishers, usually intent on the few clear streams stocked with non-native trout or the vacation waters of the Rockies. Even now, warm-water fly-fishing is a little eccentric. Bass and bluegills are the usually quarry, but to this day I have never encountered or even heard of another angler pursuing catfish with a fly rod in these parts. This is particularly surprising because the eastern Great Plains has one of the nation’s best warm and muddy fly-fishing rivers: the Nodaway in northwest Missouri.

UNL-AirLift Partnership Treats Contaminated Groundwater in Grand Island

By Steve Ress and Steve Comfort

Sometimes rather thorny and extensive groundwater contamination problems can be overcome with the right combination of innovation, experimentation, and partnership.

That’s what a researcher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources is hoping will provide a possible answer for cleaning up a large plume of contaminated groundwater just east of Grand Island.

Sand Hills Discovery Conference: The Year of the Horse

By Keevin Arent

According to the Chinese zodiac, 2014 is the year of the horse.

While dogs have been touted as man’s best friend and lions have long reigned as kings of the jungle, it almost seems that horses have been taken for granted in the scheme of human progress. Imagine being one of the fine steeds bearing the characters of Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, General George Armstrong Custer, Crazy Horse, or, even as recently as World War I, ceremoniously carrying General John J. Pershing. Herein would lay the seedbeds of great storytelling. There are surely plenty of old cowboy’s mounts from the Sandhills and surrounding areas of Nebraska with interesting tales and anecdotes beneath their saddle blankets.

Hutton Niobrara Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary

By Paul A. Johnsgard

Over the first sixty-mile segment of the Niobrara National Scenic and Recreational River, the river makes a graceful bend south, reaching its southernmost point along the northern border of Rock County. There, about twelve miles northeast of Bassett, a new Audubon wildlife sanctuary is situated, like a green emerald set dangling below the blue necklace that is the Niobrara.

The sanctuary, nearly five thousand acres in expanse, is the remarkable gift of the late Harold Hutton, son of a prominent multigenerational homesteading family and a rancher, author, and entrepreneur. Harold was also a lover of nature and decided that he would like to have his land preserved as a nature sanctuary after his death. He initially approached the National Audubon Society, which proved to be unwilling to promise that the land might not be ultimately sold. Luckily, Harold found a willing and interested listener in the form of Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas.

Listening to the Future: Omaha Public Power District Works on Maintaining Clean, Renewable Energy

By John Atkeison and Bruce E. Johansen 

Omaha Public Power District is Nebraska’s leader in the use of wind power to make electricity, and thanks to a decision by its board of directors, it has maintained the ability to retain that ranking. On June 19 the OPPD board unanimously adopted a plan that maintains a level of clean renewable energy power equal to at least one-third of its generated electricity for twenty years, among other things.

The board and management was responding to years of hearing from the customer-owners of Omaha Public Power District, to regulation by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the encroaching reality of climate changes caused by global warming, a major cause of which is the greenhouse gas pollution produced in the process of making electricity.

Thinking Like a Watershed An Ecosystem Approach to Preserving the Platte River

By Brian “Fox” Ellis

Please, I invite you to contemplate an entangled stream bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, there are birds singing on the bushes, a multitude of insects flitting about, worms crawling through the damp earth, and this river cuts through layers of fossil plants and ancient sea beds… reflect with me on these elaborately constructed forms, all have been produced by the laws of nature acting around us… There is a grandeur in this view of life, Power breathed into a few forms or maybe just one, and while this planet has gone on cycling according to the fixed laws of gravity, From so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are still being evolved. —Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

There is grandeur and power in this view of life, this rich and tangible sense of connection, this awareness that the natural world in all of its diversity is brimmingly filled with beauty.

So, borrowing a prompt from Darwin, I invite you to imagine a maze of rivers, a map of North America with its rich tapestry of ecosystems still intact.

If you could draw a 310-mile line anywhere in North America with the goal of connecting as many ecosystems as possible, where would you draw that line?

Tree Advice from a Tangled Bank

By Jack Phillips

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing in the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.” —Charles Darwin

Many blessings come to a professional tree hugger. My work has taken me to cities in the Prairie Provinces where I was quite taken by the native flora. The Canadian prairie might appear harsh and colorless in the minds of many, but I found the region to be rich in gorgeous native plants—including a diversity of trees and shrubs. The length of days and seasons, as well as the floristic influence of the boreal forest just to the north, give the shortgrass prairie a distinctively Canadian character. But the landscape felt familiar to a Nebraskan.

Walking in the Footsteps of Loren Eiseley: Scientific Discoveries in Western Nebraska

By Brandon Nelson

Loren Eiseley contributed to the scientific discoveries in western Nebraska like no other. From the years he spent digging for traces of the past in the Panhandle’s unforgiving expanses to the graceful recounting of his findings through the use of his inimitable writing and poetry styles, the Lincoln, Nebraska-born bone hunter and naturalist helped to place western Nebraska on the paleontological map.

Wildflowers Celebrated Statewide in Early June

By Karma Larson

For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to see a pasqueflower is a right as inalienable as free speech. — Aldo Leopold

Wildflowers are an important part of any region’s identity. Nebraska Wildflower Week celebrates this “sense of place” through wildflower-related events and activities the first week in June, when many of Nebraska’s prairies and gardens are at their prime.

Seeds of Wisdom: Jim Faulstich: Advocating for Prairie and Agricultural Diversity

By Peter Carrels

We’re slowly traveling along an expanse of snowy pasture in late January. It’s been a rough winter in this part of South Dakota, with a parade of blizzards and cold fronts. Foot travel would be treacherous on this icy roadway, but it’s the only route across this prairie. So we crawl ahead in a pickup truck.

The land bordering the narrow two-track is so densely draped by dormant grasses and drifted snow that hiking there would be nearly impossible. On a rare, windless day a dramatic calm settles over the smooth topography. The sun glows yellow-orange, and an almost cloudless sky surrounds us in a dome of frigid blue air. If you conjure a romanticized image of the Great Plains in winter, this might be what you visualize.

How to Eat an Acorn and Why

By Jack Phillips

October 17, 1857. Glossy-brown white-oak acorns strew the ground thickly, many of them sprouted. How soon they have sprouted! I find some quite edible. But they, too, like wild apples require an outdoor appetite. I do not admit to their palatableness when I try them in the house. Is not the outdoor appetite the one to be prayed for? —Henry David Thoreau

I once remarked to a massage therapist that anyone who wants to heal a body should know how to plant a tree. She was the director of a massage college and took me to heart. At her invitation, I began teaching an “alternative therapies” course that culminated in a native plant garden and outdoor classroom that included many wild, edible plants.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge: The Whooping Crane's Vulnerable Winter Retreat

By Paul A. Johnsgard

Perhaps no North American species of bird has come closer to extinction and yet managed to survive into the twenty-first century than has the whooping crane. The ratification and activation of the Migratory Bird Treaty in 1918 had brought the whooping cranes of Canada and the US into complete protection, but by then there were probably no more than about of these sixty birds still surviving. And, at least twenty-five more were killed during the next four years. By then it was apparent that most of the surviving birds were wintering in coastal Texas and migrating north to unknown breeding grounds somewhere in Canada. It was not until 1955 that the species’ breeding grounds were in an already protected area on the border of Alberta and Northwest Territory, Wood Buffalo National Park.

Igniting Fires, Sparking Change: Fire Trainees Leave Nebraska with New Skills, Perspectives

Firefighters Anu Kramer and Riley Bergseng light and hold the black line. Landowners put in the mow lines prior to the fire crew’s arrival. (Guy Duffner.)

By Jill Wells

What could possibly motivate a PhD student from the University of California, Berkeley to spend her spring break in Nebraska … in March? The answer is simple: fire.

Anu Kramer is a student of forestry, fire ecology, and fire modeling. “The prairies of Nebraska are very different from the forests I am researching. To be a well-rounded fire scientist, I want to learn firsthand about fire behavior and fire’s ecological role in a diverse array of ecosystems,” she said.

Kramer was joined by more than a hundred others—some students like her; some who serve state and federal conservation agencies and fire departments; some associated with private sector nonprofits and businesses; and some landowners—for a Fire Training Exchange designed to advance fire education.

What Do Whooping Cranes Do in the Winter?

An adult whooping crane begins to carefully extract a buried blue crab at Aransas NWR in late January 2014. (Liz Smith)

By Elizabeth H. Smith, Ph.D.

Of only fifteen species of cranes in the world, just two species occur in the western hemisphere: the sandhill crane, which is the most numerous, and the whooping crane, the rarest. Why have the two North American species experienced such different recent fates? We know that the sandhill crane is perhaps the oldest crane species on earth. Their bones have been immortalized in stone for six million years. Secondly, this crane has evolved characteristics beneficial to prairie life and has adapted to farming practices that have replaced the historic native prairies of North America.

However, the whooping crane, who is not even a close relative of the sandhill crane, is decidedly dependent on wetlands, both freshwater and coastal fringe habitats. As conversion of prairie potholes to agricultural lands progressed across the continent, habitat for whooping crane was lost and resulted, along with hunting pressure, in a significant decline for the species.

Seeds of Wisdom: Dirty Snow

Fall tillage practices expose soils to winter’s harsh elements, creating ideal conditions for soil erosion. (Rick Bohn)

This essay begins a series of pieces by Peter Carrels called “Seeds of Wisdom,” with the goal of providing environmental and other insight by farmers and ranchers on what they do: farming and ranching.

By Peter Carrels

Jim Kopriva and his son Lee ranch in the hill country of northeastern South Dakota, a unique area geomorphologists call the “Coteau des Prairies,” or prairie hills. This hummocky topography rises sharply above the level James River lowlands to the west and the Minnesota and Red River lowlands to the east. Scientists say that although glacial ice sheets overrode this highlands region, its stature was sufficiently influential to deflect the main masses of ice, creating calmer landscapes flanking the coteau. Up on the hills, where the Koprivas run four hundred head of Black Angus cattle on almost three thousand acres of grass and prairie, the land is decently fertile, but it also contains enough rock and roll to have dissuaded grain farming until recently.

The Science and Strategy of Habitat Conservation in the Rainwater Basin

By Doreen Pfost

When wild birds fill the skies above south-central Nebraska each spring, their voices seem to echo across the past and carry the memory of countless, massive migrations that once characterized the Great Plains.

What might northbound birds have seen from above as they flew into this region? To migrating ducks, geese and cranes, the Rainwater Basin must have looked like a watery paradise: From western horizon to east, thousands of wetlands, large and small, glittered in a vast prairie. Ahead, in the distance, was the long curve of the Platte River, flowing toward the sunrise.

Aquifers Are an Exceptional Nebraska Resource

By Oltman Gerhardt

When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water. —Benjamin Franklin

Irrigation accounts for 95 percent of the water used in Nebraska. Most of this water is groundwater pumped from aquifers and used for growing corn and beans. Nebraska has approximately ninety-five thousand irrigation wells and nine million irrigated acres, the most of any state. Irrigation continues to grow, and since 2008, over four thousand new irrigation wells have been registered within Nebraska. Although there are no exact numbers available, irrigation pumping in Nebraska uses millions of acre-feet of groundwater each year. (An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre one foot deep).

Growing a More Sustainable Food Culture

By Jeff Lindstrom

An empty two-acre lot near the corner of 40th and Old Cheney in Lincoln, Nebraska, is transforming. A gift of Southern Heights Presbyterian Church, this previously farmed land will go back to its roots and feed the Lincoln community—both figuratively and literally.

The space—Southern Heights Food Forest—will include over fifty Community Crops gardens, an urban agriculture plot, a Nature Explore outdoor classroom, and Nebraska’s first food forest. The organizers believe the SHFF will become much more than the sum of its parts; they aim to create a space in which families gather together to build relationships, where children can play freely while learning about nature, and where individuals teach each other about growing, harvesting, and celebrating food.

On Planting Wildly

By Jack Phillips

Our discovery of a white oak grove required of us considerable wandering. They were not the trees we had been looking for; those had been mutilated by a county right-of-way edict. But our grove of fifty or so trees was safe in a savanna adjacent to a narrow farm lane that had been either spared or forgotten by the chainsaw gang. The corridor that had been so savagely cleared might have been overlooked as well, as it was remote and rarely traveled. But the possibility that one day this road would see heavy traffic outweighed the rarity of a white oak stand in the eyes of the authorities.

Great Spring Birding on the Great Plains

By Paul A. Johnsgard

For Nebraskans, trying to decide where to go birding in the spring is like trying to decide between chocolate and strawberry ice cream. The Platte Valley, with its amazing numbers of cranes and waterfowl, is virtually my second home during March, but that has not prevented occasional trips to other locations having other attractions. Over the years I have made birding trips to nearly all the great birding places of the Great Plains between North Dakota and Oklahoma, with occasional forays beyond. Here, I suggest several of my favorite sites, choosing one each for Nebraska and four of its adjoining states. All five sites are within four hundred miles of Lincoln or Omaha, and nearly all (with one exception) have the highest published number of spring bird species so far reported for any location in that state. All are national wildlife refuges, having (with one exception) free public access, and all have seasonally specific bird lists. All have headquarters that provide toilet facilities and varying degrees of information on the natural history and biological diversity of the site. Numbers of bird species mentioned below are based on the most recent information that I have, but some are no doubt out of date by now and the totals should be considered as minimums.


Immigration in Nebraska

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