- Associated Press - Friday, April 28, 2017

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - A Nebraska mayor is pushing for changes in Kansas’ oversight of prairie and ranchland burning after smoke from the Flint Hills spurred health warnings in the state’s capital city.

Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler sent a letter Friday to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment pressing for action after sending an April 18 complaint.

Beutler’s original complaint came after smoke from controlled burns in March and April in eastern Kansas traveled downwind to Lincoln, Nebraska, prompting schools to cancel outdoor activities. He cited air quality warnings from the Lincoln Lancaster County Health Department and multiple days in which the area’s air quality index was unhealthy by Environmental Protection Agency standards.

John Mitchell, director for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s environmental division, told Beutler in a letter sent Monday that the department would review its voluntary plan that says when farmers should burn. Ranchers and farmers have burned land in Kansas for generations to help control weeds, trees and undergrowth that can fuel wildfires.

But Lincoln officials are seeking a less-concentrated burning season, not just an annual review of the plan. Beutler’s chief of staff Rick Hoppe said Kansas may need to look at enforcing its plan that encourages farmers to spread out the burn season and avoid lighting their fields when it could have adverse health effects on surrounding areas.

“The plan needs to be designed in such a way that it protects the health of people, and it is not accomplishing that at this point,” said Scott Holmes, manager of the environmental health division of the Lincoln Lancaster County Health Department.

Craig Volland, chair of the air quality committee for the Sierra Club’s Kansas chapter, said he thought some ranchers were burning every year that didn’t need to be. He said that it creates more smoke and eliminates habitats for other grassland species.

But some ranchers maintain that spring burning is essential for their land and livestock and helps sprout nutritious green grass for cattle grazing in the hills.

“We do an awful lot of things to try to not create problems for anybody else,” said farmer and state Rep. Larry Hibbard who says heavy rainfall this year and last meant farmers had more to burn in less time.

Kansas Department of Health and Environment spokesman Matt Keith said the department has worked with farmers to spread those burns out over the spring months. It also developed a tool to help farmers see where their smoke will go and how it will affect air quality, according air monitoring and planning chief Doug Watson.

Keith said Kansas stakeholders would review the plan again this year. He and Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Brian McManus said the states’ departments were communicating regularly.

Hoppe said Friday that Lincoln officials would see how the plan review goes before they decide whether they’re satisfied by Kansas’ response.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Hoppe said.

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