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).

A Look at Plastic Bag Bans

By Angela Ritchey

Across the nation and around the world, people are calling for and implementing bans on single-use plastic bags. The driving force behind these bans is an emotional response to a pollution problem created by the improper disposal of plastic bags—a real problem indeed, but is banning the use of plastic bags the correct response?

More than 80 communities in the United States have a ban on plastic bags. Not only does this figure include five of the 29 largest cities in America—San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.; Austin, Texas; Seattle, Wash.; and Portland, Ore.—but it also includes an additional 39 cities and seven counties in California, or roughly 16 percent of the state’s population. To date, Nebraska does not have any communities with pending legislation that would require a ban on or fee for the use of plastic bags.

Cigarette Filters and the Environment

By Emma Trewhitt

The effects of cigarettes on our health as human beings are well known. According to the CDC, smoking harms nearly every organ of the body and is the cause of nearly one in every five deaths within the United States. In the 1950s there were increasing studies showing these harmful effects of tobacco on the body, therefore filters were added to cigarettes. These filters were added with the intent of reducing the amount of tar and nicotine inhaled into the body, allowing them to be marketed as “healthier” than unfiltered cigarettes. However, the extra material added to the cigarette appears to mostly end up as litter. The purpose of this essay is to explore social factors that may contribute to the increased littering of cigarette filters compared to other sorts of waste, as well as to understand how this littering has a negative impact on the environment.

Why We Need Native Wildflowers

By Benjamin Vogt

I’ll just come out and say something to alienate lots of folks: I believe our landscapes should be planted with mostly native trees, shrubs, flowers, sedges and grasses. And by mostly I mean 80 percent, 90 percent, 100 percent. I know, I know. But I’m the kind of guy who sees a cause and knows that to even get halfway, you have to push for all of the way. And yet folks still aren’t sure what “native” means or where it is. Nurseries often have a sparse collection; independents have more, but big boxes have practically none. All have a large number of cultivars and hybrids—not the straight species plants, which can sometimes be more robust and particularly attractive to wildlife.

Just Add Water, Part Two

By Tisha Johnson

Funding large amounts of money depends on the leveraging of funds from two to three lenders or partners. A good example of this is the State Revolving Fund (SRF), which is a federally funded grant program that requires state-matched funds that provide a lower-rate loan program to municipalities. State government, specifically the Department of Environmental Quality, administers the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) and the Drinking Water State Revolving fund (DWSRF) in Nebraska. Providing loans at a lower rate than would be possible on the open market, the SRF is a federal initiative that services local governments. The SRF department collects interest and repayments on existing loans, then reinvests by leveraging both the annual federal funding plus the loan repayments. Over the long run the fund pool increases. For both the Clean Water and the Drinking Water programs, Nebraska’s SRF program is receiving $16 million annually from federal funding and a 20 percent state match for each awarded grant. To be eligible, projects must fall into the following categories: wastewater improvement, nonpoint source pollution control or estuary pollution control. For some facilities, storm water run-off control measures are eligible. To receive a lower loan rate, projects must be “green” or Lied-certified. Green projects save money over the long term and are defined as those which save energy, conserve water or resources and use more efficient technologies.

Local Food in Local Universities

By Jenn Simons, Chuck Francis and Pam Edwards

The growing disconnect between most people and where their food is produced is an increasing concern in our culture. Urban dwellers are not only distant from where most food originates, they are unfamiliar with who grows that food, under what conditions and who benefits from the business. Individual purchases and institutional sourcing products locally from nearby farmers is one way to bring consumers closer to the origins of their food. Yet it will take education and greater promotion to fully remedy the missing connection between consumers and what they eat.

Conservation from the Piping Plovers' Perspective

By Lauren R. Dinan

Imagine floating down the river in a kayak on a warm summer day. In the distance you see a broad expanse of sand peeking out of the water. The sandbar is dotted with small pieces of debris and driftwood, and in the midst of it all, a small sand-colored shorebird sits hunkered down tightly on its nest. It’s a piping plover. Piping plovers nest on exposed river sandbars, reservoir shorelines and sandpit lakes along the Missouri, Platte, Loup, Elkhorn and Niobrara river systems in Nebraska, but where do these birds go when they leave Nebraska for the winter? Do they return to the same place to nest each summer? Based on the results from an ongoing research program, we are answering these questions.

The piping plover is a state and federally threatened migratory shorebird that spends significant portions of the year in different parts of North America. This presents a unique conservation challenge, as knowing what is going on during the breeding season is only one piece of the puzzle. To better protect and manage this species, it is important that we implement conservation strategies from the piping plovers’ perspective. By doing this we are not only able to address issues that affect them during the breeding season but we are also able to address issues that affect them throughout their annual cycle.

The Photo Ark

Twin three-month-old red pandas (Ailurus fulgens) at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in Lincoln, Neb. (Joel Sartore/

By Joel Sartore

For more than 20 years now, I’ve been a contributing photographer for “National Geographic Magazine.” They’ve sent me to every continent, and I’ve worked on 33 photo essays so far. Most dealt with conservation issues.

But it has not been enough.

Every year I see more habitat lost, more species consumed for food, medicine or simply for decoration.

The Photo Ark was born out of desperation to halt, or at least slow, the loss of global biodiversity. Frankly, I didn’t know what else to do.

Just Add Water, Part One

By Tisha Johnson

When flying over Nebraska, a curious pattern appears; field after field, green circles dot the landscape. Center-pivot irrigation is the painter. Providing the right amount of water at the right times, center pivots have become an essential tool to the farming community. Tapped annually for irrigating crops, there are approximately 24,000 groundwater wells within Nebraska. Due to the interstate agreements between Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska, Nebraska must share the water of the Republican River Basin. For decades and without much deliberation, this water in the Republican River Basin was inadvertently overappropriated by allowing the drilling of more and more groundwater wells.

Studying the Migratory Patterns and Stopover Habitats of the Endangered Whooping Crane

By Dr. Mary Harner

Each spring and autumn the endangered whooping crane (Grus americana) undertakes a great migration through the Central Flyway of North America, traveling over 2,000 miles between wintering grounds along the Gulf Coast of Texas in and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and breeding grounds in Canada in and around the remote Wood Buffalo National Park.

The Greater Prairie Chicken: Spirit of the Tallgrass Prairie

By Paul A. Johnsgard

I saw my first greater prairie chicken during the late 1930s, when I was about 8 years old. It was only a freshly killed carcass, a result of a day of pheasant hunting by my father. He had hunted in an area of tallgrass prairie near my mother’s girlhood home along the Sheyenne River in southeastern North Dakota, and had never before shot a prairie chicken. That area, now part of the Sheyenne National Grassland, was by then virtually the last place in North Dakota where prairie chickens were still surviving in good numbers. I studied the bird’s beautiful buff and burnt umber plumage carefully, thinking I might never see another. And, in fact, I did not see another until more than 20 years later, when I moved to Nebraska and began a university teaching career lasting four decades. During that period I made it my sacred duty to never let a spring pass without spending at least one sunrise surrounded by male prairie chickens performing their courtship rituals amid the previous year’s growth of native prairie grasses. I knew I was witnessing a rare sight, as old as the glacier-shaped hills around me, and as entrancing as a ballet performance of “Swan Lake.” It always was a time of spiritual renewal for me, a recognition that, in the face of diminishing habitats, polluted environments and declining populations, the birds were carrying on, with all the determination and energy that a 45-ounce bird can muster.

The Grouse with the Pointed Tail

By Paul A. Johnsgard

Nebraska is one of only two states (South Dakota is the other) that currently supports thriving populations of both sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chickens, both of which are largely dependent on large areas of native grasslands for their survival. However, both species have undergone major changes in range and status during the past 150 years. Prior to the Civil War, the center of the greater prairie chicken’s distribution was in the tallgrass prairies of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, but probably extended west to the southeastern corner of what became the state of Nebraska. In the heart of their historic range they probably supplemented their basic diets of native grass seeds with the increasingly available agricultural grain crops, such as corn and wheat.

The Sentinels of Spring

Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) at Rowe Audubon Sanctuary on the Platte River. (Joel Sartore/

By Joel Sartore

If you’ve driven I-80 along the Platte River in March, you must have seen them. Mile after mile they stand there, gray sentinels too numerous to count. Lining both sides of the Interstate between Kearney and Grand Island, they’ve been waiting to put on a show … just for you.

And what a show it is. After all, they’ve been rehearsing in Nebraska for at least 10,000 years. 

Can Ecotourism Help Save the Great Plains?

By Richard Edwards

Bill Taddicken, director of the Rowe Bird Sanctuary in central Nebraska, says the four saddest words in the English language are “You should have seen…” They might be followed by “vast flocks of passenger pigeons” or “oceans of rolling tallgrass prairie” or “immense herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer, and Antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture.” That last bit was written by Meriwether Lewis.

Taddicken’s observation is double-edged. It is a lament for things not seen and that can now never be seen. But it is also an exhortation to see those natural marvels still available and to preserve them.

One way to see them is to view Michael Forsberg’s stunning photographs now on display at the Great Plains Art Museum. But Taddicken’s call is to see the real thing, to experience the noise and flutter of the sandhill cranes along the Platte or smell a Sandhills prairie in spring or thrill at the return from near-extinction of black-footed ferrets in the Conata Basin. Nature, the real thing, activates all the senses.

An App for Water

By Brian Reetz

Water is wonderful! Sit back and think about it—water is everywhere. It’s hard to do anything without water being involved in some way—from the food that is on our table to the coffee that we stop and grab at the drive-through; when we need to get our clothes clean and when we need to wash our dishes after a great home-cooked meal. But what do we know about water? Do you ever wonder about it?

A Plethora of Pelicans

By Paul A. Johnsgard

Of all the birds of the Great Plains, probably none is more widely recognized by the general public than is the American white pelican. Its almost cartoon-like profile, with a impossibly long pouched bill and a waddling gait on land that reminds one of an overweight uncle, is impossible to mistake. Yet, when swimming, a group of pelicans has the appearance of a slow but regal procession, with each bird maintaining a decorous distance behind the leader. In flight the birds produce a mesmerizing slow-motion aerial ballet. With their great wing areas providing lift for their relatively heavy bodies, pelicans can soar effortlessly in the slightest updraft, and during normal flight nearly a third of their time is spent in restful gliding. To maximize flying efficiency, the birds often assume an echelon formation, with the lead bird setting the flap-glide rhythm. As it shifts from flapping to gliding, the bird just behind does the same, and the rest follow in rapid progression. The result is a wave-like, almost hypnotizing, visual effect, which reduces the energy cost of flying for all of the birds using the slipstream of the one just ahead.

Birding at Nebraska City, Neb.

By Laurence L. Falk, Ph.D., and Susan P. Quinn

Nebraska City is located beside the Missouri River in Otoe County along the Missouri River flyway. Its rolling hills and abundant trees provide a mixed habitat for resident and migratory birds. In 1804 Wm. Clark comments about this site: “This prospect was So Sudden & entertaining that I forgot the object of my prosute and turned my attention to the Variety which presented themselves to my view” (Clark’s spelling). The creeks observed by Clark (North and South Table creeks) continue to flow, and now there are more trees along the creeks and river. The area surrounding Nebraska City was altered by recent weather extremes with constant summer flooding of the Missouri River in 2011 and drought in 2012. The flooding affected wetland areas in both Otoe County and Fremont County in Iowa lying opposite Nebraska City on the east side of the Missouri River. The wildlife effects of dike moving and repair are yet to be fully determined.

Go Wild with Nebraska's Abundant Wildlife-watching Opportunities

By Tom Tabor

When most people from Nebraska—or even from outside of Nebraska—hear the words wildlife watching, bird-watching most likely springs to the forefront of their minds. Topping those thoughts would likely be the sandhill cranes due to the fact that the crane migration is one of the top 10 species migration happenings in the world. This is similar to what one thinks of when the Serengeti in Africa is brought up and images of large wildlife, such as wildebeest, lions, elephants, rhinos, zebra and cheetahs are envisioned. Nebraska, with its diverse landscape, has an abundance of watchable wildlife beyond the noted sandhill cranes. Although not as large as elephants, there are many unique species that have adapted to the Great Plains and can excite any wildlife-watching enthusiast.


Immigration in Nebraska

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