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).

Honey Varietals and La Ruta de la Miel in Chile: Lessons for Agritourism in Nebraska

By Kat Shiffler and Chuck Francis

Chile is a fascinating environment in which to study beekeeping. The South American country is often referred to as an “ecological island”— an area of land isolated by natural barriers, which allows for a large amount of “endemism” or development of special plants in each place. As a result, Chilean apicultural (honey) production is characterized by a great variety of specific types that are derived from unique native flora; products that can be found nowhere else on earth.

Yet in just about every small town in Chile, you find nothing but humble plastic containers of generic honey. A kilo sells for about 2,500 pesos, or five dollars USD. This product looks the same everywhere, with cartoonish bees and the word Miel. But it has no date, no location, no information to distinguish it as a special product.

Nebraska Organic Farmer Recognized as 'Farmer of the Year'

By Angie Tunink

Each year, OCIA (Organic Crop Im_provement Association) Research and Education names a “Farmer of the Year” to recognize talented producers who certify to the OCIA’s level of excellence. The 2014 Farmer of the Year award went to Bernard and Sharon Kavan.

OCIA is an international charitable organization created in 2003 by certified organic members of OCIA International, a global leader in organic certification. OCIA Research and Education’s mission is to support organic research; facilitate connections between farmers, researchers, consumers, and decision-makers; and educate producers and communities regarding organic farming and foods.

The Allure of Cranes

Sandhill cranes near the Platte River. (Paul A. Johnsgard)

By Paul A. Johnsgard

As a child growing up in a tiny North Dakota village, there were few ways to escape the confines of that whistle-stop hamlet. One was to walk the railroad track that went north toward Fargo, where I was born, and south toward places that were completely unknown to me. Walking these tracks allowed me to find wildflowers growing among the prairie grasses along the railroad right-of-way and see birds like red-winged blackbirds, as well as then-unidentifiable and still unidentified sparrows lurking in the tall ragweeds growing along the tracks.

Another escape consisted of watching the wavering formations of migrating white geese that every April flew over our house in countless numbers, headed for destinations that were far beyond my ken, both geographically and ecologically. Eventually I learned the birds were snow geese, headed for the tundras of the high Canadian arctic. However, nearly three decades would pass before I was able first to set foot on that tundra and could wander ecstatically about a colony of nesting snow geese that stretched widely along the high-tide line of the vast Hudson Bay lowlands.

Drought in the Great Plains: Symposium Examines Drought in the Great Plains Landscape and Culture

By Donald Wilhite and Mike Hayes

Drought in the summer of 2012 filled newspapers across the country with maps splashed with yellows, oranges and deep reds indicative of parched lands and cracked earth. Drought had hit the country hard—temperatures soared, crops wilted, water use restricted. Then it happened again the next year.

Though drought may wreak havoc on our lives, it is actually a recurring pattern and defining feature of the North American Great Plains, the wider U.S. and the Canadian Prairie Provinces. So much so, that early maps referred to this region as the Great American Desert. The drought of the 1890s and, in particular, the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s greatly influenced the settlement and cultural history of the region. The Dust Bowl years significantly impacted the physical landscape, and its memory seems forever etched in the minds of Americans. More contemporary droughts repeatedly remind us of our continuing vulnerability to this natural hazard as drought conditions often affect large portions of the region, extending from the southern reaches of Texas and New Mexico to the Prairie Provinces of western Canada.

Harlan County's Pelican Watch: A Case of Economic Development through Birding

By Dave Titterington

When one thinks about bird-watching in Nebraska, what comes to mind is the ever-alluring pilgrimage by tens of thousands of people to witness the migration of the sandhill cranes through the Platte River Valley. Unprecedented in its scope is the hundreds of thousands of cranes congregating on a 65-mile stretch of the river, attracting visitors from across the country and around the world.

Founded by Gardeners: The Place of Plants in the Vision of America's Founding Fathers

By Jim Locklear

They have been called the Founding Fathers—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison. They were leaders of the American Revolution, statesman, diplomats, big thinkers; signers of the Declaration of Independence; framers of the Constitution; each would become president of the United States of America.

And they were gardeners.

Birding in and around Peru, Neb.: Fields, Water, Hills and Woods, Part One

By Bill Clemente

On the way to Peru State College the other morning—-where I have worked as an English professor for the past 21 years—I encountered on my dirt road drive though the bottom lands north of Peru impressive flocks of both tree sparrows and then horned larks. Preserving energy on these harsh February winter mornings, the birds lingered on the roads until just before my car reached them before they exploded into the air and swirled until my intrusion passed. The many meadow larks behave in a similar manner.

What Makes Mormon Island So Special? Time-lapse Photo Study of Sandhill Cranes Has New Answers

By Greg Wright and Jeff Oates

During spring, when hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes are concentrated along the Platte River, most people typically observe the cranes in agricultural fields or in flight between fields and the open river channel, where the birds rest in safety at night. Importantly, the cranes are also using native grasslands along the Platte River, which today are among the rarest of habitats in Nebraska, preserved in places like Mormon Island in south-central Nebraska. This rare expanse of continuous tallgrass prairie is home to the largest parcel of wet meadow habitat on the Platte River. Rich in diversity and abundant in wildlife, Mormon Island is a reminder of habitat lost—and a living monument to one of region’s great conservation success stories.

Finding the Cranes in the Patki-natawawi

By Jack Phillips

During a spring sandhill crane expedition to Nebraska’s central Platte Valley, my sons and I took a side trip to an oak canyon on a sunny afternoon. The canyon is more than a hundred miles from the major crane staging and roosting areas along the Platte River and well outside the main migratory flyway. The sun compelled me (after checking for rattlers) to lie down on a pile of winter-blown leaves, now warm and dry. I dosed off as my boys hiked and climbed and looked for sunning reptiles. I was soon startled by a chorus of kwonk-rattles. Through the bare canopy, cranes appeared against the pale March sky.

Keeping Grass as Grass: The Avoided Rangeland Conversion Project

By Anne Stine

I’m new to Nebraska and the Plains states in general. As an East Coaster, my native landscape includes broadleaf forests and nasty drivers. I moved to Nebraska last June for the Claire M. Hubbard Young Leaders in Conservation Fellowship program with The Nature Conservancy. I’ve since been exploring the prairie, learning the dynamics of this wide-open place. It did not take long for me to throw myself into the beauty of the Great Plains and its native plants and animals, particularly pollinators… but I picked a tough time to join the fan club.

Reintroducing an Endangered Species Is Complicated

By Joe Duff

The Idea

Maybe all projects start out with a simple idea like a single stem of a sapling tree. As they grow, however, branches sprout in every direction and they quickly become far more complex.

In our case, the simple idea was to teach endangered whooping cranes how to migrate. We wanted to replicate what they would have normally learned from their parents had they not been wiped out in the eastern flyway in the 1800s. We wanted to teach them the route that was passed from one generation to the next for millennia but lost when the last bird to use it died.

As that stem of an idea grew, it soon began to divide into its various branches, all part of the same tree but requiring the participation of the nine agencies and organizations that now comprise the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.

A Guide to Central Nebraska

Welcome to Nebraska! While you are in the area for the sandhill crane migration, you may find yourself with some free time between viewings. We invite you to explore all the adventures our state has to offer. The attractions listed here are a sampling of the many opportunities available to enrich your experience in central Nebraska. For more detailed information about events, attractions, outdoor recreation, places to stay and more, go to

It's Show Time!

By Jeff Oates

Like gray smoke in the wind, the sandhill cranes come as they have for thousands of years to this incomparable stretch of the Platte River in south-central Nebraska—more than half a million in all, concentrating here like no other place in the world. An estimated 90 percent of the mid-continent population of sandhill cranes gathers here every spring to rest, feed and display some of the most developed social behaviors known to nature. As individuals, pairs and family groups, the cranes will spend three to four weeks staging along the Platte River before pushing on to their nesting grounds in the north. Some will travel distances greater than 5,000 miles, from Mexico in the south to as far north as Siberia.

To Kill a Mountain Lion

By Paul A. Johnsgard

In the late 1980s, to celebrate my survival of a serious heart attack, my older brother Keith suggested to me that we go to Africa on a photo safari, something both of us had dreamed of doing for much of our lives but had never acted on. Although my own primary interest was birding and his was in climbing Mt. Kenya, we both especially looked forward to seeing such wonderful megafauna as elephants, cheetahs and lions. We spent a good deal of time watching a lion pride on the Serengeti and were greatly impressed by the bravery of young Maasai men, who spent the daylight hours guarding their cattle from lion attacks armed only with a spear. Indeed, the ultimate and sometimes fatal bravery test of a Maasai warrior is to kill a lion with nothing more than his spear.

A Conifer Conundrum

A saw-whet owl, unfortunately not on a conifer. (Paul A. Johnsgard)

By Jack Phillips

Nebraska is filigreed with deciduous fingers. The eastern hardwood ecosystem does not concede the prairie easily, pushing westward through draws and valleys. Of course, widespread oak savannas were obliterated during early waves of agriculture, leaving ravines and canyons as remnant strongholds. One of my favorites, tucked in the Kansas-Colorado corner, is packed with big presettlement bur oaks. In this canyon oasis salamanders flourish in a spring-fed meander as leopard frogs launch with every step. Intruders are scolded by flycatchers and serenaded by warblers. Signs of coyote and packrat and maybe cougar abound, and I once saw a porcupine (in southwest Nebraska!); humans watch for rattlers but are more often startled by a hognose. The beauty of that place makes one forget the poison ivy, ticks and the prospect of snakebite. But something much more dangerous now threatens to ruin paradise: eastern red cedar and its avian accomplices.

Changing Great Plains Climate and Bird Migrations

A multitude of snow geese. (Paul A. Johnsgard)

By Paul A. Johnsgard

When I was a youngster in North Dakota during the 1940s and 1950s, the seasons were very obvious and clear-cut to me. For example, I knew that the peak of fall foliage color would occur early in September. Most small birds would be gone by the end of that month, and the major waterfowl migration of ducks and geese would occur in October. By the first of November fall was usually over, and winter snowstorms could strike at any time. Then it would be an infinitely long wait until the spring thaw, and I could not expect to see even early waterfowl migrants, such as snow geese, returning to the prairie marshes of southeastern North Dakota until early April. Sadly, they would stay only a few short weeks before pushing north as rapidly as the melting ice would allow.

The Bur Oak Manifesto

Bur oak acorns, Loess Hills ecotype. (Jacob Phillips)

By Jack Phillips

A curious group had assembled for my Planting Ecology workshop at the nature center. I passed out oil pastels and white sheets of paper to enhance their diagraming, doodling or whatever they were doing as I quickly slid into a rant. They politely listened as I flailed about, wildly covering my flip chart with arrows and circles aimed at displaying the essence of rhizosphere interactions. That is, the intense zone of chemical and biological activity associated with living roots.

The Green School Initiative at Omaha Public Schools

By Ron Azoulay

At some point in February 2011 I placed a small box next to my classroom door and started putting recyclable materials into it. The materials included paper, milk containers and water bottles. At the end of the week the makeshift recycling box went home with me and its contents were dumped into my personal recycling container. After a few weeks, I had had enough. I had been with the Omaha Public Schools (OPS) district for a few months, after moving to the Midwest from New York City, and I felt that as a public servant the least I could do was recycle at work. Instead of accepting the lack of recycling at my school, I decided to talk directly with the head engineer at Miller Park Elementary, Jim Dolan, and find a solution.

There are a plethora of reasons urban public school districts choose to identify spe- cific strategies related to resource conservation. The budget shortfalls and financial reality faced by the Omaha Public Schools district in 2008 provided a unique opportunity for the district to conserve energy and resources while simultaneously exploring innovative ways to save dollars.


Immigration in Nebraska

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