Fire Helps Kansas Rancher Restore Redcedar-infested Grasslands

“When I was a kid growing up out here, there were no cedars. Dad would have to hunt like a dog for a cedar for a Christmas tree.” Tom Carr stands on a bluff overlooking the rolling grasslands of his thousand-acre ranch in the Gyp Hills of south-central Kansas, relishing the view. From this vantage point, it’s clear that you’d have to hunt like a dog once again to find a redcedar Christmas tree—a live one anyway—and that fact makes Tom grin from ear to ear.

Tom Carr (left) surveys the recovery of his ranch grasslands following the Anderson Creek wildfire, June 6, 2016.

Tom Carr (left) admires the recovery of his ranch grasslands ten weeks after the Anderson Creek wildfire with LPCI field staff member Ken Brunson (photo Sandra Murphy).

Though Tom was born and raised here, he spent his career as a professor at the University of Illinois. During that time, redcedars steadily spread across the ranch’s grasslands, as they have across much of this region in the absence of regularly occurring fire.

By 2004, Tom says, the cedars were everywhere. “My brother and I wanted to get it back to how we remembered it as kids, with hardly any cedars and grass to our waists.”

Tom remembers the abundant wildlife on the ranch at that time. “We had quail on quail,” he recalls. “We could pop up four covies in a half-hour.” All that disappeared, Tom says, when the redcedars took over.

Local ranchers Ted Alexander and Charles DeGeer told him about grant programs available for redcedar removal. “We’ve benefited a great deal from these government programs,” Tom says. With financial assistance, he was able to hire cutting teams to start to get a handle on the infestation.

Between 2005 and 2010, they cut cedars on about half the ranch’s grasslands. Despite the cutting, Tom says, cedars continued to spread because he hadn’t yet been able to conduct a prescribed burn.

He figured the burn would happen after he retired in 2010, when he and his wife Jo moved back to the Gyp Hills. But drought conditions set in and put the prescribed burn on hold.

In 2012 and 2013, Tom didn’t rent out the ranchlands for grazing as he usually does, to allow grass fuel to build up. Finally, in 2014, he was able to conduct his first prescribed burn on the ranch, as a member of the Gyp Hills Prescribed Burn Association. Over the course of two prescribed fires, he burned most of his grasslands.

Even so, many redcedars escaped unscathed. Determined to continue the grassland restoration process, he hired local rancher Keith Yearout in early 2016 to cut more redcedars in his west pasture.

Then, on the afternoon of March 23, 2016, the game-changing Anderson Creek Wildfire hit his ranch. “All hell broke loose,” Tom recalls. “It was an unbelievable day.” Stoked by high winds, low humidity, and highly flammable redcedars, the wildfire, which began a day earlier in northern Oklahoma, began to steamroll north.

Dense redcedar stands fuel the Anderson Creek wildfire, March 23, 2013 (Photo Dustin Carr).

“I had no idea there was a wildfire going on,” Tom says, recalling that day. “Then I got on Facebook and saw a post about a wildfire on the Comanche/Barber County line, four miles from my ranch.”

Tom and his son went to the ranch and pulled whatever farm equipment they could into his 120-acre tilled field. They watched the fire move onto their ranch from the west. Tom had just enough time to water around their equipment shed before the fire reached them, forcing them to retreat into the tilled field.

“It’s an interesting feeling to be completely surrounded by fire and flame,” Tom recalls with a grin. “We had 76 bales of hay pulled into the field, and they burned right up.”

The Anderson Creek wildfire races across Tom Carr’s ranch, while Tom and Dustin Carr take refuge in a tilled field. The 76 round hay bales shown in the video burned in the blaze, but the outbuilding survived (Video: Dustin Carr).

The fire burned so hot, it left nothing but bare, charred ground in its wake. “It was nothing like a prescribed burn,” Tom says. “It looked like an atomic bomb went off.”

Tom surveys the fire aftermath, which burned across his entire ranch.

Tom surveys the fire aftermath, which burned across his entire ranch (photo Dustin Carr).

The fire not only burned the ranch’s entire 880 acres of grasslands and scattered cedars, it also killed dense cedar stands on neighboring lands that would have remained a potent seed source for reinfestation.

“I was excited that so many redcedars were burning,” Tom says. He’s quick to preface his enthusiasm with empathy for the many losses experienced by people throughout the nearly 400,000-acre wildfire area. Some 600 cattle died in the fire, and several houses and outbuildings burned, along with many miles of fencing.

As current president of the Gyp Hills PBA, though, Tom is a big advocate for prescribed fire as a range management tool. “I hope the [wild]fire has convinced some people who weren’t sold on prescribed fire,” he says, since prescribed fire delivers the benefits of grassland rejuvenation and cedar control, but does so under carefully controlled conditions.

From Tom’s ranch, the rejuvenating power of fire is apparent as far as the eye can see. Beneath the blackened carcasses of thousands of redcedars and across wide-open fields, lush grasses and wildflowers—neon green in their vigor—cover what had been moonscape just 10 weeks earlier.

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By early June, grasses and wildflowers were flourishing on the ranch (photo Sandra Murphy).

“We had 18 prescribed burns lined up [within the Gyp Hills PBA],” Tom says with obvious satisfaction. “The fire took care of 14 of them!”

Tom’s equipment building survived the blaze, but he lost a lot of fence. Following the fire, he was amazed by and deeply grateful for the flood of volunteer labor and donated materials that helped with fence rebuilding.

The vigorous regrowth of grasses and forbs on his ranch allowed Tom to pasture cattle on his range in mid-June. He currently follows a prescribed grazing plan developed through the NRCS-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI). Though his land doesn’t currently support prairie-chickens, it qualified for the LPCI assistance program because of its location in a targeted priority area within active lesser prairie-chicken range.

The plan identifies a stocking rate that aims for a “take half, leave half” forage utilization, which builds grassland health and drought resiliency. “And that’s great for the lesser prairie-chicken!” Tom says with a grin.

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Catclaw sensitive briar, an indicator of healthy grasslands, was one of many wildflower species brightening the range just two months after the wildfire (photo Sandra Murphy).

It’s also good for myriad other grassland species, including the quail he and his brother hope to see restored. He’s excited about the future of his ranchlands, especially in the wake of the wildfire.

“The fire killed millions of cedars, and the land is changing for the good,” Tom says, sweeping his arm across the prairie expanse. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Learn more about LPCI’s technical and financial assistance opportunities for conservation planning, conducting prescribed burns, implementing prescribed grazing plans, and more by contacting your local NRCS office.