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).

Colorado Front Range Flooding

Visitors wander Main Street in downtown Estes Park, Colo., on Sept. 12, 2013, as floodwaters from the Big Thompson River flow past numerous stores and shops. The river overflowed its banks after three days of solid rain. (milehightraveler/iStockPhoto)

By Dan Whipple

In Boulder, Colo., at the end of September, you could virtually map the contours of the floodplains by measuring the piles of household debris left on the curb for the trash man. On the top of a rise, the curb would be clear. Twenty yards down the hill, a battered bookcase, a cluster of soggy and soiled towels. As you walked farther down the street, larger piles would appear—sofas, box-spring mattresses, dolls and dollhouses, ruined stuffed animals. Piles and piles of them, the piles getting larger as you reach the base of one hill, then repeating the pattern in reverse as you climb the next one.

It started raining on Sept. 10, and then it kept up pretty much nonstop until the 13th. And it rained hard, reaching about 1.2 inches an hour on Sept. 12. An area that usually gets about 12 inches of precipitation in an entire year got nearly 17 inches in less than a week. According to an early report prepared by CIRES at the University of Colorado, “Boulder’s COOP weather station (since 1893) set records for one-day (9.08 inches), two-day (11.52 inches) and seven-day (16.9 inches) totals; the previous one-day record was 4.80 inches and previous one-month record was 9.59 inches.”

Sustainability: A Force for Innovation

By Joshua Skov

Sustainability—the challenge of aligning our economic systems with our social priorities and environmental constraints—is viewed in the mainstream as voluntary, do-gooder thinking. But increasingly corporations and government see its strategic value for fostering change.

For most of us these days, innovation is associated with technology, and technology means gadgets. We revere smartphones and tablet computers, or eyeglasses with built-in search engines. We think of change primarily in those areas where it’s the fastest and most conspicuous.

Even when we think about the overlap between sustainability and innovation, we’re likely to think first of things: solar panels, hybrid cars, energy-efficient buildings and eco-friendly products. We occasionally think about materials, like recycled tires transformed into chic handbags or key chains made from industrial cast-offs.

I Grid You Not: Wind Power and the Case of the Missing Market

By Johnathan Hladik

Wind energy displaces nearly 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. Though impressive, that number is only a fraction of the 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide produced annually in the U.S. Much of this is a result of electricity generation, the largest source of greenhouse gases nationwide.

By replacing the output of the dirtiest, least-efficient and oldest fossil-fired power plants, wind energy can play an outsized role in efforts to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions economy wide. But in order to do so, it’s imperative that transmission constraints—the biggest impediment to a growing wind-energy industry—are removed. Right now almost 300,000 MW of wind-energy projects are simply waiting for an opportunity to connect to the grid.


By Tonya Haigh

When the rain shut off in 2012, western Nebraska rancher Lynn Myers had a plan. Myers and his wife, Marlene, and children run a cow-calf and bred-heifer operation in western Nebraska, and they had received less than 5 inches of rain (less than a third of normal) between fall 2011 and June 2012. By mid-April Myers knew, by continuously monitoring his pastures, that it was time to make some decisions. He had a destocking plan in place that would get his animal numbers in line with the amount of forage he thought his pastures could produce. He knew the plan would help keep his rangelands and his business finances healthy during the drought because before drought, he had focused on building pasture root reserves, stockpiling extra grass and leaving enough litter on the ground to hold any moisture that might fall.

Sandhill Cranes and Waterfowl of the North Platte River Valley: Evaluation of Habitat Selection to Guide Conservation Delivery

By Jonas Davis

Throughout the Great Plains, riverine systems function as critical stopover sites for migratory waterbirds to refuel and prepare for their arrival on the breeding grounds. The North Platte River, with channels and associated wetlands that extend eastward more than 180 miles from the Nebraska /Wyoming state line, is an example of both the invaluable and imperiled nature of these systems. This river annually hosts hundreds of thousands of waterfowl, sandhill cranes and other grassland and waterbirds during their spring migration. Along the North Platte River, impoundments, diversions, altered hydrology, consumptive use, habitat conversion and invasive species have altered and degraded habitat conditions. Multiple government and nongovernment entities are working to implement conservation strategies to restore these habitats and benefit waterfowl, cranes and other priority species. However, crucial information to guide implementation and prioritize actions is lacking. There is little documentation on distribution of cranes and waterfowl and, more importantly, the habitat attributes that drive those selections. Without better information to target conservation strategies, current program delivery is reactive to opportunity, and conservation practitioners lack resources to deliver the most effective conservation actions in the most suitable areas to impact these species at a landscape-scale.

Dazzling Dragons of the Sky

By Paul A. Johnsgard

Probably every person who was lucky enough to spend part of his or her childhood playing in the countryside will recall seeing dragonflies flitting about, their long, shimmering and transparent wings supported by an array of graceful veins that resemble filigree of the finest jewelry. The amazing flying ability and extraordinary eyesight of dragonflies allows them to outmaneuver almost anyone with an insect net, making them almost invulnerable to capture. If successfully captured and held in the hand, one is attracted to their enormous bulbous eyes, which occupy about half of their head and often are as flawlessly green as the best Burmese emeralds. A dragonfly’s head is flexibly attached to a sturdy, iridescent thorax that often has a few diagonal “racing-stripe” markings and supports the four diaphanous wings. Behind the sturdy thorax is a long, pencil-shaped and often boldly patterned abdomen. The whole visual effect is one that is reminiscent of an enameled metal broach by Tiffany. Indeed, dragonflies provided much inspiration for the naturalistic jewelry and fabric designs during the Art Nouveau era of the early 1900s.

University of Nebraska Ag Innovations Help Feed a Global Population: A Look at Nebraska as the Epicenter of Global Beef Production

By Ronnie Green

Today’s agriculture is not what it once was; it cannot be. It is only through continual innovation that we can meet the challenge of growing food for the nine billion people who are expected to be on Earth by 2050 and, more importantly, growing that food with less land and water than we have today.

Innovations are being tested and implemented every day in the University of Nebraska’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR), innovations that focus on ways to provide people around the world with food and energy sustainably while caring for our precious natural resources.

Agritourism and Ecotourism in Nebraska

By Angela White

Agritourism is defined as any agriculture-based operation or activity that brings visitors to a farm or ranch. Examples are U-pick fruit farms, wineries, farm stands or shops, farm stays, tours, on-farm classes, fairs, festivals, pumpkin patches and orchards.

With fewer and fewer people growing up on farms and in farm communities, many people enjoy getting the opportunity to experience some part of the rural life. Whether going out to pick berries, getting lost in a corn maze, taking a trail ride or just experiencing what one’s parents or grandparents did, consumers are turning to rural attractions as tourist destinations. This also gives Nebraska farmers opportunities to diversify their operations and add additional sources of income.

Who Will Make the Case to Preserve Prairie?

By Peter Carrels

A few years before Tony Dean died he told me that the book “Grassland,” by Richard Manning, was the most important book he’d ever read. Tony recalled reading the book multiple times because it was highly informative, dense with deep thought, majestic in its scope and provocative about a subject that had begun to take up more and more of Tony’s life: the fate of grasslands and prairie.

Manning’s book is not only a beautifully written celebration of grass and prairie, it is a daring and intelligent expose about agriculture, ecological naïveté and short-sighted greed. No writer has more effectively explained the ecological disadvantages of industrial -monoculture, the benefits of prairie and how the annihilation of prairie undermines our civility, democracy and environment.

Sights (Sites) Worth Saving: Conversations Worth Having

This article is part of Prairie Fire’s ongoing discussion of wind energy. We have published over eight articles either directly related to wind energy or examining wind energy in the larger context of “green” or “clean” energy since 2008.

By Richard Sutton

Excitedly, Daniel Lopez anticipates his class field trip to Homestead National Monument of America. His fourth-grade class at Crete Elementary School has been studying Nebraska history especially the Homestead Act, and now it’s time to leave the classroom and see a real place associated with those events. Only recently arrived in Nebraska, Daniel’s family moved from Mexico to be with their father, who works at a nearby food plant. Along the highway on the bus ride Daniel settles into his seat, tries to ignore his squirming seatmate, and imagines what the pioneers saw arriving here to settle the land. It is such a different one than he remembers of Chihuahua. At Homestead National Monument, his whole class fidgets expectantly as they noisily stream off the bus and head toward Homestead’s Heritage Center. Some of the class stays inside to look at the displays, but Daniel and a small group with their class para-professional head out the patio door and make a beeline for the log cabin sitting just a short distance away, punctuating the end of a hedgerow.

Wh-o-o-a! He pauses, taken back; from behind the cabin, actually looming over it, rise spinning wind turbines.

Developing Regional Food Systems in Nebraska

By Stephanie Kennedy, Jon Bailey, Kathie Starkweather and Charles Francis

Nebraskans spend $4.4 billion on food each year. Yet only 10 percent stays in our state. These are surprising statistics, given that agriculture is the foundation of our economy.

Shouldn’t we expect most of the food we purchase to come from our state? The truth is, buying from the local grocery store or eating out doesn’t mean we’re consuming products grown in our region or state. How do we keep more of our food dollars in our own state and local economy?

How I Learned Ecology by Walking Like a Camel

By Jack Phillips

Henry David Thoreau is rightly revered for his writings on “wildness.” He is celebrated by contemporary environmentalists, who somewhat erroneously claim him as their exclusive prophet, confusing “wildness” with “wilderness.” In fact, his famous devotion to walking, expounded in his book by the same name, led him through farm country around Concord that had been thoroughly altered by human activity and was not a wilderness by any stretch. Farmers and urban park planners could claim him as their prophet as well. But as I am fond of reminding anyone who will listen, it is not wilderness, but wildness, that needs to be discovered.

A Yellowstone Story

Teton range in autumn, from Oxbow Bend, Grand Teton National Park, Wyo.  (Thomas D. Mangelsen)

By Paul A. Johnsgard

My first view of Yellowstone National Park occurred when I was a teenager, just after World War II, when gas was again becoming easily available and my father had purchased a 1946 Ford. I had pleaded with my parents to consider a vacation trip to visit Yellowstone Park for our annual vacation; I even threatened to hitchhike there if necessary. I had just purchased my first 35 mm camera, an Argus C-3, which was totally unsuited for photographing wildlife, but which I felt would at least be adequate for scenic photography.

My dearest wishes were realized when my parents agreed to the trip, and we set off in late June, driving via South Dakota’s Black Hills and Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains. These regions provided my first views of real mountains, which were soon outmatched by the amazing alpine scenery we encountered as we approached the park on the Beartooth Highway. We spent two days in the park, the most memorable aspect of which for me was the amazing number of black bears that we saw. We counted well over 50 within the park, including several females with cubs, as well as bison, elk and mule deer, plus a lone coyote. I saw dozens of bird species for the first time, such as Steller’s jays, gray jays and Clark’s nutcrackers, and had a fleeting but memorable glimpse of a rare Lewis’s woodpecker. I also vividly remember seeing ospreys nesting on rocky pinnacles in Yellowstone Canyon.

To Benefit Its Citizens Nebraska Needs to Get in the Clean Energy Game

By Ken Winston

What if the Husker football team lost to Iowa by a score of 51-6? What if Iowa beat us every year? What if the Huskers lost to Wyoming and South Dakota State, too? What if we also lost out on three major recruiting battles to Iowa, for a five-star quarterback, running back and defensive lineman? Nebraskans would be outraged; they would be calling for a new football coach, a new system, a totally new way of doing things.

In fact, Nebraska’s public utilities are getting beaten in the clean energy effort, and it has a much more serious impact on our citizens and our economy. Iowa has developed more than 5,100 megawatts (MW) of wind gener- ation capacity to Nebraska’s 450 MW. In fact, by the end of last year almost all of our neighboring states had developed far more wind-generation capacity than Nebraska, including Kansas at 2,700 MW, Colorado at 2,300 MW, Wyoming at 1,400 and South Dakota at 780. Why is that important? Because it has a direct impact on electric rates and jobs, both of which are very important to all of us.

Stormwater: Our Own (Relatively Recent) Creation

By Kent E. Holm, CSM

Let’s face it … did the term “stormwater” really even exist in the lexicon of the average American even a decade ago? Think also of “wastewater” in general and the significant and substantial changes that our country has experienced in terms of how we deal with our residential, commercial and industrial sewage, especially in the post-World War II era. We tackled the need to treat our wastewater/sewage instead of simply dumping it into our lakes and rivers and letting “dilution” take care of the issue. Now we are taking on “stormwater”—the water that originates during precipitation events.

Thompson v. Heineman: The Lawsuit that Might Delay Keystone XL… Again

Fragile topsoil in the Sandhills is vulnerable to blowouts like this one adjacent to Susan Luebbe’s ranch. (Greg Rohde)

By Kietryn Zychal

Nebraska Gov. Heineman slammed his fist on a table and raised his voice as he said, “Do you mean to tell me that the DEQ doesn’t know what they are talking about and they didn’t do their jobs?”

The governor was addressing a group of Holt and York County residents on Feb. 2, 2012. Most had driven four-and-a-half hours to Lincoln to show him lab results from soil samples taken throughout the Keystone XL reroute that the state Department of Environmental Quality and TransCanada claimed had been “moved out of the Sand Hills.” The landowners paid $600 of their own money to have 11 soil samples analyzed by Midwest Labs of Omaha. Amy Schaffer, daughter of rancher Bruce Boettcher, attempted to show the governor a PowerPoint presentation illustrating that soil on the north shore of the Elkhorn River—deemed outside the Sandhills by an EPA ecoregion map—was as sandy and porous as soil on the south shore of the river inside the area labeled Sandhills. Sample A, taken at the entry point of KXL into Nebraska, was an astounding 87.2 percent sand. The governor was unmoved.

Bison Natural Region

By Francis Moul

They are North America’s largest mammals, shaggy beasts with spindly legs but with surprising speed and amazing strength. If aroused, they can go through a reinforced five-strand fence as if it were paper. They once covered most of North America by the tens of millions but were reduced to a few hundred animals by the beginning of the 20th century. Today, bison may be one important piece to the restoration of successful economic life, pride and wildlife biodiversity on the northern Great Plains.

This is a time of long-term drought that has decimated cattle herds in the northern Great Plains, a time when deep rural counties have lost population over several decades until there is little vitality left. Businesses are closing, young people are leaving and some communities resemble ghost towns. It seems ironic that bison may be one way to begin to reverse this tragic trend.

In Search of Nature and a Cup of Strong Coffee

By Jack Phillips

First light comes late to central Alberta. I had arrived at the Calgary Zoo before dawn on a cold October morning with enough time before class for a hike to the coffee shop. I was there to teach tree ecology to provincial arborists, and my search for coffee put me on a dark, winding path. The zoo was designed according to biomes, and the Canadian Rockies section included steep inclines, boulders and a native arboretum. One could catch glimpses of bison and grizzlies through groves of aspen and pine. The designed sense of nature was enhanced that morning by the concealment of enclosures and the fact that the zoo was not yet open and the lights were off.

Nebraska Public Power District’s New Plan Highlights Benefits of Clean Energy

By Duane Hovorka

On June 14 the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) board of directors approved a new Integrated Resources Plan. For more than a year and a half NPPD staff and board members have studied the many options for meeting the future energy needs of its customer-owners and the many rural public power districts and municipal utilities that buy electricity from NPPD. Those options include both supply options (new power plants, wind farms and energy storage) and demand-side management (energy efficiency, conservation and shifting loads to off-peak times).

The results are eye-opening.

How I Learned Tree Planting from Salamanders

By Jack Phillips

My work with Native Alaskans took me to the Tsimpsean village of Metlakatla on Annette Island. On a day off I hiked up the appropriately named Purple Mountain. I found a barren and rocky landscape laced with cold streams and dotted with alpine pools. In this exposed place on that intensely sunny afternoon, I was surprised to find an abundance of salamanders.

Back home on the Plains, our tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) are usually found alone or in small groups in dark humus and decaying vegetation. They are nocturnal creatures of the mysterious margins where organic matter is transformed to soil and slimy creatures live in a secret world webbed with roots and fungi. But the newts of Purple Mountain displayed no such secrecy that bright day. They behaved in a very unsalamander-like manner as I found them in the shallows, unashamed, in great squirming balls of sexual embrace.


Immigration in Nebraska

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