Kansas State won’t rehire controversial professor

MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — Kansas State University isn’t renewing the contract for a professor who co-published a research article on grassland burning that questioned long-held university guidance to ranchers.

The university is citing budget issues, but research associate Gene Towne said he believes the decision stems from his research that found ranchers could burn grassland at times other than April. The university, which says Town’s research was flawed, has long insisted that spring, especially late April, was the best time for burning to reduce undesirable plants and revive the grass for cattle grazing.

“It raises controversy that some people want to avoid,” Towne said.

John Blair, administrator of the university’s Biology Division, said Towne’s research project did not meet accepted standards and that Town lacked technical skills. He also said Towne’s contract was being allowed to expire because of budget issues.

Towne’s appointment will end when a National Security Foundation grant supporting his work ends on Oct. 31. The Topeka Capital-Journal reported (http://bit.ly/1ELDqzx ) that a new six-year federal award increased to $6.7 million from $5.6 million and Towne is the only person to be let go.

The research was based on data collected from 20 years of burning at the university’s Konza Prairie research area, south of Manhatten, and found that grasses burned in the winter or fall had more time to respond to precipitation and resulted in more grass diversity, which is good for cattle.

Towne, the biological station fire chief at Konza, and Joseph Craine, a research assistant in biology, concluded that burning during fall, winter or spring had no negative impact on the prairie and may even have some benefits. Their article was published the paper in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE.

In August, Blair told Towne in an email that the study’s conclusions were inappropriate.

“You and Craine make unsupported conclusions that exceed the limits of the data collected and which it seems are primarily intended to discredit earlier research done in the KSU College of Agriculture with respect to prescribed spring burning as a management practice in cattle-grazed grasslands,” the email read.

Blair also said the report would negatively impact “the reputation and credibility” of the Konza Prairie research program and damage collaboration with state and federal agencies.

Expanding the time for burns also would reduce the smoke drifting into Wichita and Kansas City, where air pollution limits have been exceeded during spring burns. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment says it has been working with the university and other agricultural organizations to educate local landowners about the drifting smoke, and 500,000 acres were burned in March.



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