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).

Steamgages: The Silent Sentinels

By Robert Swanson

I have a particular, or some might say peculiar, occupational hazard. As others travel the country, they look dutifully right and left at intersections. Now I promise I do that, too, but in addition, I scan ahead and left and right when crossing streams and rivers. What’s the estimated river discharge? Is the flow high or low? Invasive species? Algal blooms? But most significantly for me, is there a streamgage? Typically these gages are identified by small shelters at either end of a bridge that contain instrumentation continually measuring the stream or river water level. This instrumentation transmits that data in near real time for posting on the Internet for almost immediate access to water-resources decision makers and the public.

The Eagles of Nebraska

By Paul A. Johnsgard

Nebraska is blessed in having substantial populations of both species of North American eagles, the bald eagle and golden eagle. The bald eagle, our national symbol, has become sufficiently common during the last four decades that it not unheard of to see them perching or fishing within the city limits of Lincoln. In the summer of 2012 a pair even nested along Salt Creek, at the northern edge of the city. Yet, from 1962, when I first arrived in Lincoln, until the late 1970s, a sighting of bald eagles almost anywhere in the state would be memorable.

Aldo Leopold and the Land Ethic for 2012

By Jerry Wilson

When Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” was published in 1949, I was four years old and climbing my first tree to peer in wonder at the sky-blue eggs a robin had laid. In college I absorbed the vision of Henry David Thoreau, and on two pilgrimages to Walden Pond swam naked by moonlight and slept beside Thoreau’s foundation stones. When my wife and I took responsibility for land on the Missouri River Bluff in 1982, I had lived three decades in largely undisciplined efforts to make sense of the natural world. Then a friend gave me “A Sand County Almanac.” I found described in a thoughtful, orderly way the rough and sometimes vague perceptions and conclusions to which living was bringing me.

The Faceless Farmer

By Warren Kittler

It’s the middle of the summer. It’s hot. The kind of hot that smacks you in the face and melts the soles of your shoes. Yet here we are, standing in the partial shade of a canopy, drenched with sweat, talking with dozens of people as they pick up their vegetables. Even if they don’t say it out loud, you can see it in their eyes. They think we’re crazy. And they kind of like it.

Craziness is, perhaps, the defining characteristic of a farmer. I’m not referring to the craziness of the farmer managing 4,000 acres of transgenic soybeans and corn with a GPS-guided million-dollar tractor (although that has its own level of craziness). Rather, I’m talking about the small-scale, hyper-local, toes-in-the-mud kind of farmer. The grandma who runs outside at 2 a.m. in her skivvies to swear at the raccoon that somehow found its way into the chicken coop again. The African refugee who grows two dozen varieties of ethnic greens and knows the best way to cook each one. The young father who stands at the farmers’ market stall, choking back a retort and somehow responding graciously when a customer says that $4 a pound is way too much for green beans. And if these farmers are crazy, then I’m not sure what our label is—our goal is to convince even more people to farm.

How I Learned Ecology at an Egyptian Mosque

By Jack Phillips

I was enrolled in a graduate seminar in the early 1980s that met in Cairo. One warm afternoon I decided to skip class and take a nap. Finding a refuge from traffic noise and the desert sun was not easy, but I found a local medieval mosque that offered walled sanctuary with plenty of cool stone and cooing doves. Nestled in a carpeted corner, I awoke from my unauthorized snooze to find myself surrounded by young men sitting at the feet of an Imam who looked as old as the mosque. Realizing that I had skipped class only to wake up in another, I sleepily propped myself against the wall to be lectured in an unfamiliar language.

The North Dakota Oil Boom

By Francis Moul, Ph.D.

Imagine a typical rural farmstead on the Great Plains: a stately house, large lawn, outbuildings and a protective line of pine trees on the north edge. Now, fill that lawn with 10 to 12 trailers and recreation vehicles, parked willy-nilly with no hookups for electricity, water or sewer. That is a typical rural farmstead in the northwest corner of North Dakota.

Along with the farmsteads, picture tidy but long rows of trailers packed onto a rural site along a highway or trailers sitting in most parks and driveways of towns and villages or large sterile-looking dorm buildings lined up with showers, mess halls with four-star chefs and laundry and recreation areas.

These all are “man camps” holding thousands of Oil Patch workers come to produce millions of gallons of oil every day from the Bakken formation underlying an area of 18 North Dakota counties, plus eastern Montana and southern Saskatchewan in Canada. They have transformed the sleepy prairies of northwest North Dakota into one of the largest oil booms in North America.

Behind the Scenes with "Great Plains: America's Lingering Wild"

By Michael Farrell

Three years ago this fall I introduced Mike Forsberg to an audience of families at Spring Creek Audubon Prairie where I was chair of the board. The occasion was an outdoor sundown slide show presentation of Mike’s photographs from his new book, “Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild.” As Mike spoke and showed his remarkable pictures, I thought, “We’ve got to get Mike and his message to the public television audience.” Everyone lounging on blankets or sitting in their lawn chairs that evening from grandmas and grandpas to kindergartners was in thrall, not only to the photos but also to Mike’s message of urgency and hope about the future of “wildness” across the Great Plains.

A Farewell to Fossil Fuels: Answering the Energy Challenge, Part Two

By Amory B. Lovins

The United States must replace its aging, dirty and insecure electric system by 2050 just to offset the loss of power plants that are being retired. Any replacement will cost about $6 trillion in net present value, whether it is more of the same, new nuclear power plants and “clean coal” or centralized or distributed renewable sources. But these differ profoundly in the kinds of risks they involve—in terms of security, safety, finance, technology, fuel, water, climate and health—and in how they offset innovation, entrepreneurship and customer choice.

Choosing electricity sources is complicated by copious disinformation, such as the myth that nuclear power was thriving in the United States until environmentalists derailed it after the March 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown. In fact, bad economics made orders for nuclear power plants in the United States fall by 90 percent from 1973 to 1975 and dry up completely by 1978. Indeed, soaring capital costs eventually halted nuclear expansion in all market-based power systems, and by 2010 all 66 reactors under construction worldwide had been bought by central planners.

Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge: Gem of the Missouri Valley

Snow geese landing at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge. (Paul A. Johnsgard)

By Paul A. Johnsgard

During July 1804, Lewis and Clark traversed up the middle Missouri River valley, through a region that is now part of northwestern Missouri. On July 12, near the mouth of the Big Nemaha River, they observed some “artificial mounds” representing the locations of ancient Native American graves. There they also saw many Canada geese families along the river. Now, 200 years later, the Big Nemaha River is a tiny, muddy remnant of its once 80-yard width, and all traces of the burial mounds are gone. A small town, Mound City, has developed near here along the eastern edge of the valley, and a stream with the anachronistic name of Squaw Creek provides critical water for Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge. And, from late fall through early spring, upwards of a million or more birds stop at this refuge while on their migrations north and south, arriving from breeding grounds as far north as Canada’s high arctic tundra and heading toward wintering grounds as far south as southern South America.

Forsberg to Present "Pulse of the Plains"

By Barbara DiBernard

On Thursday, Nov. 15, at 7 p.m., photographer, author and conservationist Michael Forsberg will present “Pulse of the Plains” at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln, Neb. This presentation is sponsored by Friends of Wilderness Park, a nonprofit group dedicated to the preservation of Wilderness Park as a unique and sensitive biological community. It is open to everyone for a $10 admission.

LEDs Are Lighting up the Night

By Tom Knoblock

LED-based solid-state lighting (SSL) is opening up new opportunities for improving outdoor lighting with incredible energy savings in applications where lights burn throughout the night. LEDs are a long-term solution for streetlights, parking lots, convenience store canopies, lighted signs and even high-mast highway lighting. LEDs are highly efficient, long lasting, environmentally friendly and, when you combine the controllability of LEDs to compound energy savings via dimming and powering lights off when not needed, LEDs further offer better light quality than HID sources and eliminate light pollution.

In the Path of the Pipeline, Part One

Runnels of water in the Sandhills, August 2012. (Adrian Olivera)

By William Beachly

We were somewhat reluctant Argonauts as we clambered aboard this strange-looking amphibious vehicle for a descent into Otter Canyon. It had six oversized, puffy tires and a bathtub-like body with camouflage paint. Calvin, our pilot, had earlier that day led us into his property on the south bank of the Niobrara River, through which the Keystone XL is slated to cross, ostensibly NOT in the Sandhills.

The absurdity of that designation is immediately evident all around us, on that ridge over Otter Canyon where dune crests roll off to the south, mantled with prairie sand reed, blazing star, evening primrose and dozens of other typical Sandhills species. At my feet is open sand; a few sky-blue lizards scurry after a smorgasbord of grasshoppers among prickly-pear pads and bunch grasses. Below these sands the waters of rains have sifted for thousands of years into the Ogallala Group, only to eventually hit the impermeable White River Group below and flow horizontally to the depths of canyons like Otter, where they emerge as crystal clear springs. Otter is just one of dozens of canyons descending to the Niobrara, but this one is in the path of the pipeline.

A Farewell to Fossil Fuels: Answering the Energy Challenge, Part One

By Amory B. Lovins

Picture of solar and wind powerNearly 90 percent of the world’s economy is fueled every year by digging up and burning about 4 cubic miles of the rotted remains of primeval swamp goo. With extraordinary skill, the world’s most powerful industries have turned that oil, gas and coal into affordable and convenient fuels and electricity that have created wealth, helped build modern civilization and enriched the lives of billions.

Yet today the rising costs and risks of these fossil fuels are undercutting the security and prosperity they have enabled. Each day the United States spends about $2 billion buying oil and loses another $4 billion indirectly to the macroeconomic costs of oil dependence, the microeconomic costs of oil price volatility and the cost of keeping military forces ready for intervention in the Persian Gulf.

Opportunity from the Ashes: Fire at the Niobrara Valley Preserve

By Jill Wells and Chris Helzer

Wildfires touched nearly every corner of Nebraska this summer. This is the story of how the Fairfield Creek blaze affected The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Summer is always a busy time for young visitors at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, and July 20 was no exception. There’s a lot for a kid to see at this 56,000-acre preserve (commonly called “the NVP”). More than 600 plants species and 85 butterfly species have been documented there, along with 268 species of birds. Bison herds—reintroduced to the preserve in 1985—fascinate young visitors as they roam thousands of acres of pasture.

Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center: An 800-Acre Schoolhouse

By Paul A. Johnsgard

Spring Creek Prairie shimmers like a newly woven copper-colored blanket in the brilliant sunlight of late October. Covering more than 800 acres of glacially sculpted land in southeastern Nebraska and located less than 20 miles southwest of Lincoln, its high hills represent the western limits of the last great glacier reaching this far south. Spring Creek’s hilly ground is intermixed with rich soil materials carried in from the north and blown in from the west, but its undulating surface and rock-strewn substrate have protected it from the plowing and cropping that were the fate of nearly all of eastern Nebraska’s fertile lands.

Planting Autumn Oaks

By Jack Phillips

Some people ask “Why native trees?” and “Why bur oaks?” It’s a little bit like asking “What’s the big deal with sandhill cranes?” True, the conservation of all native birds and trees is important. But the bur oak, like the sandhill crane, is in desperate need of protection and is symbolic of the unique and fragile ecosystems of the Great Plains. Without careful and enlightened seed collection, germination and planting, bur oaks and other local, native trees will become nostalgic curiosities limited to a few protected preserves. The impact on countless creatures—including ourselves—would be detrimental, serious and lasting.

Farmers' Markets and the Local Economy

The Lincoln, Neb. Haymarket Farmers’ Market showcases the fruits and vegetables of the season. (M. Forsberg /Nebraska Tourism) 

By Megan Jackson

On a recent Sunday at the Old Cheney Road Farmers’ Market in Lincoln, Neb., a couple strolls through with their dog and a large, empty shopping bag. Stopping to chat with long-time farmers and market vendors, Bob and Ruth Johnson from Johnsons Farm, they take their time making a loop around the market, sipping coffee and filling their bag.

A young family stops to enjoy the banjo playing of a local musician.

The kids from Chisolm Family Farm greet customers as they walk by and offer up samples of their aged pepper jack cheese.

Climate Change is Fracking Society

By Auden Schendler

Fracking isn’t only happening in the gas fields. Because of the never before seen and almost impossible to grok (or solve) problem of climate change, fracking is happening all over the environmental movement.

Moms are fighting kids. Boards are fighting staff. Nonprofits are fighting each other. Left is fighting right and left. Republicans are getting sick of their weird and lame leaders, like Romney, Gingrich and McCain, who clearly understood climate science until they didn’t understand it and are spinning off on their own to fix the thing.

A Dazzle of Hummingbirds

By Paul A. Johnsgard

Query a typical Nebraskan as to whether he or she has ever seen a hummingbird or a UFO, and the response is more likely to be in the realm of flying saucers than flying birds. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are common migrants in eastern Nebraska, and a few stay on to breed along the Missouri River Valley, but it takes special efforts to be able to see them. During May, they migrate through the state rather rapidly and rarely stop for more than a day or so at bird feeders before continuing north to begin nesting in the Dakotas, Minnesota or southern Canada. However, the fall migration is a more leisurely one, with the first adult males usually arriving in mid-August, and some females and immature tarrying into middle or late September. It is then that one’s best hopes for watching them can be realized.

Managing Mountain Lions in Nebraska

Two mountain lion cubs play with an elk hide while their mother watches. (Thomas D. Mangelsen) 

By Michael Wunder

Over the past two decades, mountain lions have slowly regained footing in Nebraska. In fact, in a survey of 14 Midwestern states, Nebraska’s 67 documented sightings of mountain lions between 1990 and 2008 have made the state the leader of the pack. After having been hunted and driven from the state in the early 20th century, the majestic, elegant cats have gradually been coming back to roost since 1991. The key word there is gradual.


Immigration in Nebraska

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