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Controlled burn causes dispute

Fire is an occurrence that can be dangerous or beneficial depending on the circumstances, according to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park Service.

As the Park Service plans to implement prescribed burning in wilderness areas this spring, some environmental officials are skeptical.

The Park Service plans controlled fires at Fort Union, Knife River and the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which is an area federally, defined as "wilderness," said TRNP Chief of Resource Management Bill Whitworth.

The federal Wilderness Act defines wilderness as a piece of land that generally seems to have been primarily affected by nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable.

Zone Fire Management Officer Beth Card of the U.S. Forest Service in Dickinson has assisted the Park Service during past burns and she said there can be some conflict about burning in wilderness areas.

"Some people feel that in a wilderness area you should let it alone to do its own thing, other people feel wilderness areas need to be managed," she said. "It depends on

perspective."

TRNP Fire Management officer Rod Skalsky said burning helps to release nutrients and if managed carefully can be a useful tool.

"Prescribed burns certainly have a place in wilderness under certain conditions," Skalsky said. "There is a lot of flexibility in the definition of wilderness."

Whitworth said that all fire was extinguished in this area for most of the 20th century because people were entrenched in the tradition that fire was dangerous, and now using prescribed burns will help to return the area to a more natural state.

"The intent of wilderness is to minimize the footprint of man and allow natural processes to take place -- fire being one of those processes," he said. "The problem with fire in this state and others is that it has been suppressed for many decades. Wilderness needs to be wild and it is not wild if you inhibit the natural processes."

However, Minot State University Professor of Science Ron Royer said it seems counterintuitive to create something natural using man-made processes.

"If a fire occurred naturally in the area, my understanding is we would let it have its way if it did not pose a risk, but to bring it in and introduce it intentionally and artificially seems to be counter to the mission and idea of wilderness," Royer said Tuesday.

The Park Service's fire management plan was completed in the late 1990s and was revised in 2008, Whitworth said, adding that each scheduled burn has its own management plan that undergoes a regional office review and technical review.

Card said the Park Service's fire management plan allows natural fires to burn if they are watched closely, but that has not happened in more than a decade. Usually the conditions aren't right, she said.

Senior Wilderness Campaign director for the Wilderness Society Bart Koehler was concerned that natural fire was being replaced, instead of supplemented, by prescribed fire.

"Natural fires and prescribed fires both have their place in wilderness and both should be used in wise and careful management scenarios," he said. "It needs to be managed in a case by case basis."

Card said conditions are usually too dangerous.

"In this area, with the fuels we have it is much more difficult," Card said. "When you are using wildfire as a tool to accomplish some sort of goal or objective, you have to have some time to do some planning so you can control it when you need to."

When planning a burn, the environmental circumstances must fall within a predetermined range for moisture level, smoke dispersal, wind, temperature and humidity before a burn will be initiated, Card said.

Burns are always done with a specific purpose, Card said. She added that quite often they are used to reduce heavy buildup of flammable vegetation under circumstances that are safe.

"We go in under conditions we choose instead of having it burn in August when it is 95 degrees and 35 mile per hour winds," She said. "So it reduces hazard fuels, which reduces fire danger in the area."

Skalsky said that other goals may be to restore native prairie grasses, change soil composition to promote growth of new plants, reduce noxious weeds and exotic plants and alter grazing patterns.

Royer is concerned about the smaller influences in the ecosystem that may be

affected.

"We know about wolves and cougars and elk, but we don't pay attention to critters that are just as important ecologically, but not as conspicuous and in some cases not even yet known," he said commenting on invertebrates in the area. "There are thousands upon thousands of other organisms we don't know very well. There could be some species that are unique to that area that would be lost forever."

Whitworth said that the Park Service strives for patchy burns to promote the retention of the current ecosystem in burned areas.

Skalsky said Thursday, if conditions are right, the burns could commence next week.

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