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Burns promote healthy prairie
September 22, 2016 Jerry Purvis   

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Frank Marquez/Gering Citizen Smoke rises from controlled burns on lands adjacent to the Scotts Bluff National Monument last Saturday.

On September 16, fire crews from Wind Cave in South Dakota were at Scotts Bluff National Monument to mimic nature, burning off some 900 acres of prairie.

Depending on the ecosystem that makes up any particular national park, prescribed burns are conducted at about 10 year intervals. At Scotts Bluff, burns are done in sections at different locations, depending on overgrowth of prairie vegetation.

Last week’s burn was done in the Crown Rock area, immediately south of the monument’s visitor center. “That area hasn’t had a prescribed burn since about 1998, so it was past due because the underlying thatch was so thick,” said Dan Morford, Scotts Bluff National Monument Superintendent. “We’re mimicking what nature does all the time with wildfires.”

He added that in the past, fires and large grazers, such as bison and cattle, kept the native grasses short. Today, alternative measures are needed to keep the prairie healthy.

Morford said the prairies, in their native state, recover quickly from wildfires. “If we get some moisture this fall, we can expect the area to start greening up. It will really turn a brilliant green in the spring. Plus, the plants will have much more protein for the wildlife. In a way, fire acts like fertilizer.”

In addition to helping revitalizing the prairie, fires rid the land of non-native, and invasive species of plants. Cheat Grass and Japanese Brome are two major culprits common across the West. It raises concerns for ranchers and other producers because invasive plants choke out all other competition on prairie land.

Morford said some sections of the burn area were untouched. Those areas are being studied by the U.S. Geological Survey to develop effective controls for invasive plants.

Morford, who has a background in fire management with the U.S. Forest Service, said prescribed burns aren’t an answer to every problem; it’s one of many management tools used with other tools to maintain a healthy ecosystem.

Because the cultural landscape is an important part of Scott Bluff National Monument, prescribed burns help maintain the prairie grasses pioneers would have seen on their way west.

“Part of the visitors’ experience is to see how the area used to look,” Morford said. “One couple who recently visited told me they’d never seen grass that tall. Our native landscape is part of the visitor experience.”

Another reason for regular prescribed burns is to reduce the threat of wildfires that could spread into neighboring communities. Morford said it’s the underlying thatch layer that can hold smoldering embers that burn hotter and keep the fire burning.

“It’s hard to fathom, but prescribed burns are a huge benefit all around,” he said. “We have them scheduled and always watch the weather for the right conditions. Although we had some unexpected winds, everything stayed where it was supposed to be.”
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