The Flint Hills springtime prairie burns

March 25, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

The Flint Hills Spring prairie burns

An annual tradition rich in history and folklore

It's that time of year again.  That time when cattle ranchers of the Flint Hills region of East-central Kansas set over 2 million acres of their pastures ablaze, readying their pastures for the cattle that will be shipped to the Flint Hills to graze during the spring and summer.  While most of the grassy prairies in neighboring states have been plowed for crops, the rocky nature of the Flint Hills prevented farmers and ranchers from plowing.  Between 80% to 90% of the remaining tall grass prairies in the world are located in the Flint Hills because of it's rocky terrain.

What exactly are the Flint Hills?

The Flint Hills are a 200 mile long by about 60 mile wide swath of hilly, tall grass prairie that extends from Nebraska at its northernmost point down into Southern Oklahoma (called the Osage Hills in Oklahoma due to the Osage indians being relocated to that region in the 19th century), stretching through east-Central Kansas. The Flint Hills owe its existence to the layers of chert (flint), along with limestone and shale, the result of a large inland sea that covered the central United States region many millions of years ago.  Along with limestone, chert is a hard material that erodes at a slower pace than shale, which creates a series of steep-sided, terraced tablelands that make up the Flint Hills.   

The earliest recorded accounts of the prairies being burned by man begin in the early 1500s from early Spanish Explorers.  In the 1590s, the Wichita Indians reportedly set fire to the prairies to burn out a group of Explorers, only one surviving to tell the story.  In 1679, Father Louis Hennepin witnessed the Sioux tribe fire the prairie on 3 sides of a large herd of bison, the fire forming a horse shoe shape.  The bison, with only one way to run, ran right into the Sioux, whom were waiting to ambush the bison.  In May of 1680, Father Hennepin became a temporary prisoner of the Santee Sioux Indians, and witnessed his captors set fire to the prairies as a way of communication. Hennepin also said that those same Sioux later purposely set fire to the prairies to make their captive "prisoners of war", including Hennepin, march faster.  They had to out march the fire or burn to death!  In September, 1806, explorer Zebulon Pike passed through the Flint Hills, and was the first to give name to this region by recording in his journal "Passed very ruff flint hills.  My feet blistered and very sore".

Later settlers in the 1800s tried to prevent the prairies from burning.  Largely unsuccessful, they began setting fires themselves, mostly as a preventative measure, to keep the inevitable prairie fires from burning their property and towns.  As settlers populated and began farming the heartland of America, the burning of most of the prairie lands ceased, with the exception of the Flint Hills.  Farmers learned early on that the fires re-juvenated the prairies, and starting in the 1980s, an increasing number of ranchers have been burning their pastures, reclaiming their land back from trees, shrubs, and non native, less nutritious grasses that have invaded.

 Why burn the Flint Hills?

Each spring, large sections of the tall grass prairies in the Flint Hills of Kansas are burned off. If your not familiar with this process, it can seem really scary, even devastating. The fires, however, are intentionally set, the ranchers burning off their pastures for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to: 

  1. Keeping invasive species such as sumac, Elm, Locust, and Red Cedar (which is actually a species of juniper) at bay.
  2. Keeping invasive, less nutritious grasses from invading.
  3. Clearing last years dead growth allows the sunlight to penetrate, stimulating the spring grasses to begin growing sooner.
  4. Returns nutrients to the soil, supporting the release of fungi spores, the fungi helping with phosphorous intake of grasses.
  5. Cattle grazing on previously burned pastures have been proven to gain on average, 40 lbs more than cattle grazing on unburned pastures.

The Folklore of the Flint Hills prairie burns

Historically, burning the Flint Hills prairie was not a solitary endeavor, it was a community one.  It united friends and strangers alike. Prairie fires were everybody's business and everybody's responsibility. To this day, ranching neighbors work together to make more efficient work of this task, often lighting the prairies late in the day when the winds have died down.  The resulting nighttime pasture burns have wowed spectators since the earliest settlers and attracted curious visitors and tourists from many other states and even other nations.  The controlled prairie fires are beautiful, often described as breathtaking, riveting and compelling.  Cottonwood Falls, Kansas even hosts an annual "Prairie Fire Festival", an event that is held during the prairie burns every spring. The Flying W Ranch hosts an event, called the "Flames In The Flint Hills", in which ranchers Jim, Josh, Gwen, and Josie Hoy have turned prairie burning into a tourism business.  Visitors come, and for a fee, under close supervision, watch the Hoy's and their ranch hands burn many hundreds, even thousands of acres of pastures.  Now, Jason Soden Photography offers photographers a chance to exclusively photograph this time honored event on a working cattle ranch!!!

Your chance to be part of the history and folklore!!

Jason Soden Photography and Craig McCord Photography have teamed up with the Clover Cliff Ranch to offer photographers and artists a chance to participate in the burning of the Flint Hills prairies.  Jason and Craig host a workshop that is exclusive to the artists that sign up. You'll get to talk to the ranchers who have opened up their ranch to us, and experience their way of life.  There will be a day burn, followed by a night burn.  This coming year, after we photograph a day burn, we will retreat to the Limestone house of the Clover Cliff Ranch Bed and Breakfast, and enjoy a smoked brisket dinner, and listen to the cowboys talk about their way of life and answer questions.  After our dinner, the most exciting part of our workshop begins, lighting the pastures against a Flint Hills sunset.  Photographers love photographing silhouettes of cowboys and prairie fires up against the sunset, then later, photographing the prairie burning under the stars, at times lighting up the night like it was day!

If you wish to take part in our workshop next year, please email me at sodenphotography7@hotmail.com to reserve a spot.  Better hurry, this workshop fills up fast! 

 


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