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Paying to Burn the Prairie Grass

Sylvia Maria Gross

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Up in flames
(Sylvia Gross)
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Jan Jantzen grew up in a small town in western Kansas. "I've always been an outdoors kid at heart," Jantzen says. "And gave things names -- trees and weeds and bushes, even when I didn't know what they were."

Jantzen eventually became a college administrator at Emporia State University, and then moved to Cincinnati to run the admissions office at Xavier University. When he retired from academia, Jantzen returned to Kansas and bought a cattle ranch in the Flint Hills.

It's a region with the largest swath of original tall grass prairie in the nation. For thousands of years, animals have grazed on its natural grasses and wildflowers. And every few years, a lightning strike would burn the pastures down to ashes. That's a good thing -- the burns release nutrients that help more grass to grow. It's an ecosystem that Native Americans and then modern ranchers like Jantzen have learned to help along with cattle and fire.

"If we didn't burn and graze this area," Jantzen says, "it would become primarily a scrub forest, mainly with Eastern Red Cedars that wouldn't have much value for anything."

But the rising price of corn and other grains has put the squeeze on cattle ranchers in the Midwest, who use grain to feed their livestock. So Jantzen has come up with some new ways to find value in the land and the ranching tradition, by taking advantage of the drama of the elements.

When it came time to burn each spring, Jantzen would call over some friends, get some six-packs and make a party of it. But then friends would invite more friends. People from out of town would hear about it and start scheduling vacations around Jan's prairie burn. Some even started offering to pay.

So Jantzen created an event -- "Flames in the Flint Hills," where guests pay $120 each to help him burn his prairie. Anne de Montille brought her husband and four children. They're originally from Paris, but now live in Kansas City.

"We talked to our friends, American friends in Kansas City," de Montille says, "and they say 'What are you going to do? Burning what? But nobody does that...' I say but OK, we are going to do it."

This year, there are 50 paying guests at Jantzen's burn. There's also a bluegrass band and a caterer who serves local cheese curd, peach-glazed buffalo and barley meatballs out of a chuck wagon.

In the barn, Jantzen steps on a little stage in front of guests sitting on bales of hay. He provides a basic history and science lesson, then states some fire safety tips. "It's important to me that everybody that came with hair and eyebrows leaves with the same amount of hair and eyebrows."

Jantzen's rule of thumb is to remember the colors black and blue. If the fire's heading at you, he says, go to an area that's black, because it's already been burned. "If you can't get to some place black, go someplace blue, like a pond."

With that, we're ready to set some fires. Jantzen hands out matches. People pick up their rakes and follow him past the ponds to one of his pastures. We line up along one edge of the pasture with our backs to the wind. Jantzen tells us to pull the tall, dry Indian grass into little clumps for kindling.

"Fire lighters, are you ready?" he calls. "Light the fire!"

It's windy, and the grass takes a few seconds to catch. But when it does, the fire lighters use their rakes to drag it along the ground until it whooshes up into huge flames. In a minute or two, it's a true inferno, licking the sky 20 feet up, hotter and brighter than I expected.

Some people here are old hands at this. Brian Keith is a local rancher -- he's helping Jan out as a volunteer, and admits some locals think this is a little weird.

"The older generation really do think its awkward or odd that somebody would come pay for a experience like this," Brian says. "But I think it's a great opportunity for them, and it's also an opportunity for Jan to create a little income and educate the public at the same time."

There are people who criticize these burns. They say the smoke causes air quality problems. But Jantzen says prairie burns are essential to ranching, and he hopes these events will teach people about the origins of their food.

Jantzen also wants to show struggling farmers and ranchers other ways to make money from their land. He says most four-wheelers, tractors and combines have an extra seat in them these days. And that extra seat could be worth $100, to have a tourist ride along, see what it's like to harvest corn or wheat.

It's the end of the evening, and we're getting a little giddy surrounded by lines of flame and walking over the charred ground in between. Even as people leave, Jan still has work to do. He pulls up to the smoldering field in his four-wheeler, with a Miller Lite in hand.

"I'm celebrating," Jantzen says. But he's not done yet. "I see the possibility of some fenceposts that might be on fire so I'm going to go down, and put out some fence posts."

Comments

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  • By Jan Amberson, Ph.D.

    From Prescott, WI, 04/19/2008

    It occurred to me that should also have said that my husband and I have 1.5 acres of prairie on our 3+ acres south of Prescott that we burn, usually each year; and we are members of The Prairie Enthusiasts, a several-state organization that restores and maintains remnant prairies.

    By Jan Amberson, Ph.D.

    From Prescott, WI, 04/19/2008

    Please let Mr. Jantzen know that burning prairie is only a temporary smoke problem related to air quality. Dr. David Tilman, Regents' Professor of Ecology at the University of MN, and leading researcher in prairie biodiversity, says that the amount of carbon that prairie sequesters, even with burning, is still 2000 lbs. per acre.

    I think if we planted diverse prairie everywhere logical, i.e. unused pastures, poor agricultural land, roadsides, etc., we could significantly reduce CO2 in our atmosphere. And it requires no chemicals to thrive.

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