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Anderson Creek Wildfire Cleanup Initiative would help ranchers build on benefits 143083Anderson Creek Wildfire Cleanup Initiative would help ranchers build on benefits

Wildfire took out tens of thousands of red cedar trees; prairie restoration minded rancher wants to capitalize on the "20-year head start" fire provided in combating invasive species, restoring prairie ecosystrem

PJ Griekspoor

June 24, 2016

6 Min Read

Ted Alexander has been in full-out war with eastern red cedar trees for more than 30 years.

Now, thanks to the devastating Anderson Creek Wildfire last March, he is seeing a chance for true victory.

"The fire wiped out tens of thousands of cedar trees, including a bunch of those big, 15-foot tall ones and the infestations down in the deep canyons," he said. "Every acre of our ranch burned on March 22."

The Anderson Creek Wildfire started in northern Oklahoma and spread rapidly northward across the border, pushed by 50 and 60 mph winds. When it finally came under control several days later, 635 square miles of rangeland in Barber and Comanche counties had burned, marking it as the largest wildfire in recorded Kansas history.

Along ridgetops and down into draws, around creeks and streams and deep into the canyons, growing, water-consuming red cedar trees are now replaced by stark, blackened skeletons and brown, bushy dead cedars.

Great opportunity
Alexander sees a once-in-a-lifetime chance to move quickly to knock down those skeletons and eliminate a major threat of re-seeding from birds perching in those skeletons doing what it is that birds do.

He knows that raising the money to help landowners who haven't been able to keep up with the spread of cedars on their land pay for getting rid of the skeletons will be a big job. Educating them on why they need to eliminate cedars will also be a big job.

Working through the Comanche Pool Prairie Resource Foundation, a 501 C-3 non-profit organization that was formed in 1999 with a mission to regenerate Kansas and Northern Oklahoma grazing land resources, the Anderson Creek Wildfire Cleanup Initiative has been formed to do that big job.

The mission of the new initiative is to return ecological functionality to landscapes that are unlikely to recover naturally.

Immediate goal is $1 million
Alexander said the group hopes to quickly raise $1 million to clean up an initial 33,000 acres and expand from there.

He said he thinks that is feasible because there are already strong relationships that have been established through the Comanche Pool.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that a complete cleanup of the cedar remains and any surviving cedar trees will cost $56 million. Alexander said he knows that amount is out of sight in the immediate future, but thinks that by leveraging partnerships with a dozen conservation organizations, it is possible to provide funds to help landowners pay for getting the cleanup done through the use of matching funds.

"We don't have to raise the whole $56 million right away," he said. "If we can just get $1 million to start the process, we can do the most critical clean-up and once landowners see the benefits, I think support will grow."

A "go fund me" site has been established to accept private donations from the public to help with the effort.

Establishing priorities
The top priority is clearing skeletons and surviving cedars from the most productive ridge areas, he said.

In a tour around Alexander's regenerated pastures which were a sea of black in the wake of the fire, the result of his battle against cedar trees over 30 years was apparent. Many of his neighbors have pastures full of cedar skeletons. Alexander's pastures are a sea of waving green big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, buffalo grass and sand sage sprinkled with the color of native prairie forbs such as the butterfly milkweed.

Alexander said when he moved back to Gyp Hills in 1974 to help his grandparents with the ranch, the pastures were anywhere from 40% to 75% infested with red cedar.

He was an art teacher in Texas before returning the ranch, so he knew he faced a steep learning curve. So he began to study.

"I learned that two things are absolutely to maintaining the prairie," he said. "One is fire, the other is grazing by ruminant animals."

Fire controls woody shrubs, including eastern red cedar, provided the invaders are small enough of the time of the burn. Once cedars get to be 6 to 8 feet tall, a prescribed burn, which is much cooler than a wildfire, won't kill them.

"It takes a temperature of 140 degrees to kill a big cedar and hotter for them to ignite," he said. "So you can see where it burned hot enough and where it didn't. But when they do ignite, they explode so they are a big contributor to wildfire spread."

Alexander studied the value of prescribed burns and became an advocate. He studied the value of managed grazing and how to practice it. He said he burns once every five to seven years and sometimes 10 years depending on the observed need for it.

He also waged war on cedars, cutting them by hand and clipping them by machine, and he saw almost immediate benefits.

More water is big benefit
"There were places where I had dry creekbeds with little or no streamflow except after a heavy rain event," he said. "In a year or so after getting rid of the cedars, I noticed that there was water in those streams for longer and longer periods of time. And some of them are now classified as perennial streams."

Stewart's Creek on his ranch now has water year-round except in extreme drought, and one end has a succession of beaver dams that hold water year-round.

He said the statistics on cedars and water are grim.

"One mature cedar tree will suck up 15 gallons of water a day," he said. "In this area, the average 22 inches of annual rainfall adds about 100,000 gallons per acre of water to groundwater in a well-managed pasture that is free of cedar trees. A poorly managed pasture with a 40% to 60% infestation of cedars will reduce that water storage to 20,000 gallons per acre.

The Cleanup Initiative is well aware of that statistic and of the potential in the coming months to succeed at an ecological restoration that will have a huge impact on the future of the region for 100 or more years into the future.

Protecting water quality
The second top priority of the Initiative is to clear dead and living cedars out of riparian areas, protecting creeks and small ponds from the pollution or reseeding of undesirable tree and woody species that cause water quality degradation or depletion.

"How great would it be if we could see even a half-dozen of the now-dry creekbeds restored as streams?" Alexander asked. "I know it works; I've seen it on my own land."

A third priority, he said, is the restoration of wildlife habitat, especially the prairie ecosystem that supports the Lesser Prairie Chicken and the expansion of the habitat for the threatened bird.

"I have chickens on my ranch," Alexander said. The burn area is the eastern edge of the established habitat. Restoring the ecology of this region has great potential for expanding that habitat back to historic boundaries."

Also on the list of desirable goals for the Cleanup Initiative is the establishment of native species in areas that need to be reseeded with native grasses and the monitoring and control of noxious weeds.

"I will say that I am very worried about noxious weeds," Alexander said. "We were blessed to have ranchers from all over send us supplies of hay in the days after the fire. But we know that hay coming from all over could bring in the seeds for Old World Bluestem, Serecia lespedeza, knapweed and other noxious weeds. We have to stay vigilant and control any appearance of those kinds of weeds right away."

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