Prescribed Burn on Hutton Niobrara Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary
As the sun set over the Niobrara River, the day’s final light cast a colorful backdrop to the blanket of smoke and lingering flames. Although much of the grasslands on the Hutton Niobrara Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary were blackened and smoldering, they will soon transform into a brilliant green landscape of new growth.
On March 14th and 15th, a team of thirty-eight fire managers and trainers from 10 states and Spain helped to successfully implement a 2,350-acre prescribed burn on the Sanctuary. The Great Plains Fire Learning Network team represented nearly a dozen agencies, organizations, volunteer fire departments and included thirteen fire ecology students from the University of Idaho. While working on the Sanctuary, the entire team stayed at the local Bassett Lodge—a cornerstone of main street Bassett, a town of around 800 people. The adjoining Rangeland Café served hearty breakfasts and opened for evening dinners exclusively for the team. One student proclaimed that the café served the best breakfast she had ever eaten! The photo below, from a front-page article in the Rock County Leader, shows the fire team and some of their equipment stretched out along “main street”.
In addition to restoring grasslands and prairie ecosystems, the Niobrara Sanctuary believes that activities such as this can also help to strengthen rural and small town economies. The Sanctuary regularly employees a number of local residents and hired additional help during the past six months in preparation of the prescribed burn. This recent work included mowing burn lines and cutting hundreds of large cedars, which were then made into fence posts or included in the burn. A photo in the Omaha World Herald shows Jordan Ross of Valentine at work cutting cedars on the Sanctuary to clear flammable trees from the boundary of the planned burn units.
Fire is an important and natural part of prairie ecosystems and vital in reducing invasive woody plants such as Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Considerable numbers of small and medium-sized cedars were killed, and in combination with mechanical cutting, significant progress was made toward the restoration of native oak woodlands and other diverse plant communities.
Although prescribed burning—particularly on a large scale—is not yet a commonly accepted practice in the Nebraska Sandhills, we believe that this successful burn and the participation of a team of professionals offers tremendous educational and demonstrational value.
By promoting sustainable ranch management and the complimentary role of fire, we hope that this prescribed burn helps to build public acceptance for the managed use of fire and highlight opportunities for other land managers across the region.
The Niobrara Sanctuary greatly appreciates the assistance and leadership of the Great Plains Fire Learning Network and all of the local community members involved in this important management project.
–Ryan Klataske, Hutton Niobrara Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary
To see media coverage of the project, click on the links below:
10 states, Spain represented at controlled burns, Sandy Benson, Norfolk Daily News, March 19th
Sanctuary to burn invasive cedars, David Hendee, Omaha World-Herald, March 14th
Prescribed burn training to take place, Sandy Benson, Norfolk Daily News, March 10th