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).

Too Little Water, Too Much Water: Pakistan's Climate Change Dilemma

By Simi Kamal and Amina Siddiqui

In 2010 and 2011 Pakistan experienced two of the most catastrophic floods in its history. The scope and scale of the crisis was unprecedented. The damage caused by the 2010 floods affected 20 million people, with over 2,000 dead in 82 districts and more than 4.6 million people left without shelter. According to United Nations estimations, the vast flood waters and heavy rainfall impacted an area of over 39.5 million acres. The economic damages resulting from these floods were estimated to be well over U.S. $10 billion, in line with the Asian Development Bank and World Bank assessment that provided initial figures of U.S. $9.7 billion.

Mow Better Blues

By Benjamin Vogt

Finally, it’s the weekend. Lazy mornings where the fog of a long sleep creeps delightfully into every waking observation—the robins feeding their young at the nest, bees hopping from coreopsis to coneflower, the cool breeze before a suddenly warm afternoon. And the belching vibration of the neighbor’s lawnmower along the fence, the sweet exhaust stinging one’s throat on the retreat back inside.

Birds of the Tallgrass Prairies

By Paul A. Johnsgard

Nebraskans may be justifiably proud of our tallgrass prairies; few other states have a larger number of protected tallgrass prairies that are open to the public for our enjoyment and educational opportunities. They include prairies located in state parks, such as Rock Creek Station State Park in Jefferson County, and state wildlife management areas (WMAs), such as the 1,120-acre Pawnee WMA, Pawnee County, and 600 grassland acres in Twin Lakes WMA, Lancaster County. There are also some federally owned restored prairies, such as at Homestead National Monument in Gage County and Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge in Douglas County. City-owned prairies include both virgin and restored prairies in Lincoln’s Pioneers Park, and there are several Nature Conservancy prairies. The University of Nebraska owns the historically famous 240-acre Nine-Mile Prairie, located nine miles northwest of Lincoln. The best-preserved and one of the best-studied tallgrass prairies in Nebraska is National Audubon’s 800-acre Spring Creek Audubon Prairie. Located in the glacial moraine hills of southern Lancaster County, it was acquired by the National Audubon Society in 1999 and contains over 350 species of plants. A listing of more than 75 tallgrass prairies in eastern Nebraska, plus 13 more in adjacent states, is available online (Johnsgard, 2007). Most of these sites are freely open to the public.

The Inaugural Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival

By John Ragsdale

Nebraska’s first Prairie Chicken Festival took place the weekend of April 20 in the Sandhills near the Calamus Reservoir north of Burwell.

The event—hosted by Calamus Outfitters and the Gracie Creek Landowners and sponsored by Audubon Nebraska, The Nature Conservancy, the Nebraska Bird Partnership and the World Wildlife Fund—was organized to celebrate prairie chickens, sharp-tailed grouse and the beauty of the locale they inhabit.

Passing the Torch: Fire Training Exchange Draws Participants from across the U.S. and around the World

By Jill Wells

Jeremy Bailey just can’t stay away from Nebraska.

For the third consecutive year Bailey, who works for The Nature Conservancy as its fire training and networks coordinator, left his home in Salt Lake City to spend a long, smoky month in the Cornhusker State. His mission: demonstrating safe preparation, planning and execution of successful controlled burns through fire training exchanges.

It's Crane Season - in Wyoming

Female sandhill crane with egg in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, May 31, 2011. (Paul A. Johnsgard) 

By Paul A. Johnsgard

Considering that Nebraska and Wyoming are adjoining states, it is surprising that the two states’ sandhill crane populations are so very different. Over 90 percent of the 500,000-plus sandhills seen annually in Nebraska are migrants of two smaller races (lesser and Canadian) that are present only when they are heading to or coming from breeding areas that may be located up to nearly 4,000 miles away. In Wyoming these small sandhill cranes (weighing about 6–8 pounds) occur only in the eastern parts of the state, where they migrate through the eastern plains during spring and fall, and are sufficiently abundant in the fall to be considered as legally hunted game birds.

Tree Planting & Forestation in Nebraska: A Continuing Success

By John Ragsdale

2012 marks the 140th anniversary of the creation of Arbor Day.

Established by J. Sterling Morton—one-time and well-known Nebraska journalist and secretary of agriculture in President Grover Cleveland’s administration—with the goal of encouraging the planting and conservation of trees, Arbor Day enjoyed immediate success. Over one million seedlings were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day, April 1, 1872.

Achieving Sustainable Food Security with Less Water: The Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska

From left, Kebede Ayele, country director for International Development Enterprises in Ethiopia, and Soumen Biswas, executive director of Professional Assistance for Development Action in India, talk with Jeff Raikes, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, during the keynote dialogue of the 2011 global Water for Food Conference in Lincoln, Neb. (DWFI) 

By Roberto Lenton

Agriculture and the water needed to grow crops have always been of critical concern to Nebraskans, but more recently water and food security have surged to the forefront of issues discussed internationally. A current example is Tom Friedman’s column “The Other Arab Spring” in the April 7 issue of the New York Times. Friedman cites the serious droughts and severe crop failures in Syria from 2006 to 2011 and suggests that the resulting tensions over land, water and food were key drivers of social unrest in the region. This situation is not atypical among the world’s most water-scarce countries, many of which are also experiencing significant population growth. More people will need more food and water, and a changing climate brings additional risks. Countries must find ways to provide food security for their growing populations while at the same time ensuring that scarce water resources are conserved, so that they can be used for other critical purposes.

Camp Life with the Skinner Crew, 1935

The Skinner camp, circa 1935. (Photographer unknown) 

By Barbara J. Skinner Lamb

One summer evening my cousin Howard Williamson, my parents, Morris and Marie Skinner, and I sat in lawn chairs on the front patio of my parents’ home and talked about camp life in the 1930s. Howard and my parents talked, and I wrote down most all the stories and history they told me.

In 1935 the crew that hunted for fossils and worked with my father were all in their mid-20s; my father was in his 30s. He was a paleontologist working for The American Museum Of Natural History in New York City. We lived in New York City part of a year and in Ainsworth and the Sandhills the remainder of a year. The study and search for fossil life was paradise for my dad all of his life.

How Will Ongoing Climate Change Affect Drought in the Great Plains?

 A dry stream channel of the North Platte River during drought conditions in Goshen County, Wyo., near the Wyoming-Nebraska state line, May 22, 2002. (USGS)

By Robert J. Oglesby

Drought is a ubiquitous feature of the U.S. Great Plains. Droughts can be short (seasonal), prolonged (occur over several years) or, according to the prehistoric record of so-called “megadroughts,” even persist for decades or longer. The definition of drought depends on context; that is, a short-term drought may be highly detrimental to agriculture, while stream flow may only be affected over prolonged time periods.

Whatever the timescale or affect, drought is due to insufficient rain and snow, possibly in combination with excess evaporation. Drought is likely initiated by remote factors such as cyclical changes in ocean-surface temperature patterns that affect the large-scale atmospheric circulation. These remote factors work in conjunction with local feedbacks due to soil moisture, snow cover and vegetation that can enhance and/or prolong the drought. In this article I will describe how global and regional models of climate have been used to evaluate the relative importance of these local and remote factors. Of course, what everyone interested in the Great Plains wants to know is what will happen to droughts in the future, especially under scenarios of global warming. I will summarize the current understanding of likely climate change for the Great Plains for the remainder of the 21st century, including implications for future drought.

Rainwater Basin Joint Venture: The Partnership Evolves, Part Two

By Doreen Pfost

In 1991 a team of wetland and waterfowl biologists received the news they had awaited for over a year: the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture (RWBJV) had been granted official status by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) committee. Recognition of the new Joint Venture laid the groundwork for region-wide conservation in south-central Nebraska, where each spring millions of migrating waterfowl and other birds fill the skies, fields and wetlands.

The Birds of Nebraska's Boondocks

By Paul A. Johnsgard

The first time I set foot on the shores of Lake McConaughy in the mid-1970s, it was against my will. I had been asked to teach ornithology at the University of Nebraska’s newly established Cedar Point Biological Field Station and anticipated enduring a several-week stay at a hot and mosquito-rich location. I was still grumbling to myself as I approached Kingsley Dam, about nine miles north of Ogallala, and turned off on a narrow gravel road leading through a steep, rocky canyon. Suddenly I flushed a great horned owl from its nest, startled a magpie and could hear rock wrens singing from the canyon walls. In an instant my mood shifted to elation, and I began one of the happiest experiences of my life.

The Ongoing Evolution of the Urban Landscape

By Kendall Weyers

The awareness of the dynamic characteristics of our urban landscape is unsurprisingly low. In our hectic day-to-day activities most of us seldom notice the subtle but constant changes in the landscape around us. The same can be said for the attitudes and approaches of our culture to landscaping—dynamic yet often unnoticed. But that condition has begun to change. The exciting developments occurring right now are so significant, eyes and minds are finally being opened, and people are starting to pay attention.

Lauritzen Gardens Battling Plant Blindness with "Wicked Plants"

By Jim Locklear

Were you raised by wolves?!” exclaims the exasperated mother of the badly behaving child.

It is no secret that people sometimes misbehave just to get attention. Recognizing the effectiveness of this tactic, Lauritzen Gardens, Omaha’s Botanical Center, is using some badly behaving plants to draw a bit more attention to the botanical world in 2012.

The Making of the Great Plains

National Park Service photograph of a large family on a successful homestead, late 19th-century. (Homestead National Monument of America)

By Richard Edwards

Nations need myths. Myths draw us together, define us as a people, give shape to our culture. Some myths elevate us; others produce harmful, even catastrophic results.

The myths I refer to are not fictions but rather the constructed and shared versions of our past. They may be fashioned out of historical accuracies or contain large portions of error or even fabrication. Some myths, like the story of our nation’s founding fathers or of President Lincoln’s personal growth toward becoming the Great Emancipator, give us a way to celebrate our past and unify us as a people. Others, like the notion that President Obama is a Muslim, are intended to divide us.

For the Birds

A studio portrait of a male lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus). (Joel Sartore/

By Joel Sartore

In all my years of watching sandhill cranes on the Platte, I’ve never forgotten about Martha.

When I was a child, she fascinated me more than words can say. There she was, in a grainy black-and-white photograph, in a book on birds that my mother had. The picture was taken at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1913.

Looking warily at the camera sat a solitary bird in an iron cage, the very last living passenger pigeon. For several years, people knew she was the last, and stopped by to see her while they could. She died in 1914, ending a species of bird that once numbered in the billions.

Why Wildflowers?

By Luann Finke

With thousands of planting options each season, why consider wildflowers? As so many native plants have been lost, their habitats destroyed and insect and bird populations decimated, can an individual’s small wildflower planting matter? The surprising fact is the cumulative impact of the small pieces of native plantings make a difference. They become a giant step forward in correcting decades of losses. When we work together to find every opportunity to include native plants in the right locations, we will rebuild our natural environments.

Rainwater Basin Joint Venture: The Early Years, Part One

By Doreen Pfost

In the waning days of winter, weeks before the soil sends up its first green shoots, the skies over south-central Nebraska herald the season of new life. No single description is sufficient for the Rainwater Basin’s springtime migration; every day and every place is different. Dark tendrils streak the sky high above Kearney County one afternoon as ducks and geese stream northward from their wintering grounds. The next morning hundreds of mallards might mill about open water at Funk Waterfowl Production Area, the drakes’ green heads iridescent in the sunlight. Miles away, 10,000 northern pintails rise from a wetland in a brown-and-white mass, briefly blotting out the sky. Days later flurries of snow geese—like localized blizzards—swirl here and there over Clay County cornfields. Other days, other places, a mile too far east or west, an hour too early or too late … the birds might seem to be gone.


Immigration in Nebraska

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