North Central Nebraska is experiencing an invasion of eastern redcedar. This prolific, hardy native tree encroaches on prairies and takes over the understory in hardwood and pine woodlands alike – reducing available forage for livestock and wildlife, stressing other native plants, and reducing biological diversity. Historically kept in check by periodic wildfire, eastern redcedar now flourishes due to increasingly successful wildfire suppression efforts coupled with an increased seed supply from planted windbreaks. This scenario has and is being played with similar ecological and cultural responses throughout the Great Plains, though the timing is delayed as one moves from the southeast to the northwest parts of the Plains.
Ranchers became increasingly concerned as they helplessly watched their grass disappear under the trees and had to reduce herd sizes or find alternative pastures to compensate for the loss. Mechanical and chemical treatments are expensive and labor intensive. Prescribed fire has proven effective for controlling cedar, but a strong cultural bias against prescribed fire has delayed the use of fire as a range management tool. In 2008 no organized landowner mechanism was in place in northern Nebraska to effectively reintroduce fire to the landscape, and most ranchers were hesitant to use prescribed fire on their own.
Recognizing that the primary barriers to the use of prescribed fire are a lack of landowner training, a lack of specialized equipment, and not having enough people-power to conduct burns, landowner meetings were held in various parts of the eastern Niobrara Valley to see if there was interest in forming a landowner prescribed fire association. Nearly a hundred people attended three community meetings – a goodly number for such a sparsely populated area – and the Niobrara Valley Prescribed Fire Association (NVPFA) was born. A board of directors, initially consisting of five and now seven landowners representing various sections of the valley, stepped forward. The Board of Directors, elected an executive committee consisting of a president, vice-president, and secretary treasurer to lead the Association.
The NVPFA mission statement reads: We support the safe and effective use of prescribed fire by private landowners within the Niobrara River drainage area of Nebraska. The Corporation will pursue its mission by: conducting field and classroom training in the use of prescribed fire; promoting an understanding of fire as a range management tool among the citizens and leaders of the region; and making the specialized tools and equipment required for prescribed burning more accessible to private landowners of the region.
Using the earlier successful Nebraska models of landowner prescribed fire organizations such as the Loess Canyons Rangeland Alliance (LCRA) and Prescribed Burn Task Force (PBTF), the Niobrara landowners crafted by-laws and by 2009 became incorporated as a Nebraskanon-profit Corporation. They worked with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to get two Mobile Fire Cache units, each fully outfitted with two slip-on pumper units and other equipment, tools, and protective clothing for a 10-person crew.
The units are owned by NGPC and administered by the Association. In order to use the Mobile Fire Cache units landowners must be members of the association, have an approved burn plan, an approved fire boss, and a burn permit from the local volunteer fire department chief. With the equipment problem addressed, the board turned its attention to training. They applied for, and received Nebraska Environmental Trust and Sandhills Task Force grants to help with the costs of offering training and public education about the benefits of prescribed fire.
In April, 2009 they offered their first “hands-on” spring training burn – an introduction to basic fire behavior and tools, followed by a 28-acre burn under hardwoods along the banks of theNiobraraRiver. That June they offered a post-burn tour of that burn and several other spring burns that had been conducted by landowner members and contractors. Altogether that first year they conducted six burns on over 2,000 acres. They were learning that the third barrier, lack of people to help, was also being addressed. Neighbor members of the Association were beginning to help each other burn. Currently there are three informal, neighborhood landowner burn crews operating in the region. Field training sessions are occurring in both spring and fall burn seasons.
In the late winter of 2012, the NVPFA sponsored its third consecutive Mid-Winter Fire Seminar. For this year’s Mid-Winter Fire Seminar the Association was fortunate to get The Nature Conservancy’s Fire Learning Network to conduct their Seminar in conjunction with management-scale burns, including a five-landowner combined unit of 1400 acres. Association supported burn acreage during the 2012 spring burn season totals over 5,000 acres.
NVPFA landowner members pay $10 per year plus a penny an acre for access to the Mobile Fire Cache units, and supporting members pay $100 per year and are identified on our website. These funds help offset the costs of Mobile Fire Cache maintenance Prescribed Fire Training events, the Mid-Winter Fire Seminar, and website maintenance. The Association website is at www.nvpfa.org, and it has a Facebook page.