US Senator John Thune’s Weekly Column: On Prescribed Burns, Ask Those Who Know Best

thuneheadernew John_Thune,_official_portrait,_111th_CongressOn Prescribed Burns, Ask Those Who Know Best
By Sen. John Thune

Almost every rancher in western South Dakota whose operation includes or borders federal land is familiar with prescribed burns and the importance they play in land management. Prescribed or controlled burns remove residue, enhance new growth, and they help prevent the spread of invasive species or disease. Perhaps most importantly, they help mitigate the risk of damaging forest or prairie fires. Prescribed burns, when conducted correctly, provide numerous benefits to the land and the surrounding landowners and communities. When set under unsafe circumstances, like hot, windy, or dry conditions, prescribed burns have the potential to destroy millions of dollars’ worth of private property.

The federal government, including the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the National Park Service (NPS), use prescribed burns on federal land across the country. I’m a strong supporter of safe, controlled burns on federal land, but they must be well-planned and started under optimal conditions, and only after federal agencies have properly consulted with state and local officials. 

There are two important examples in South Dakota that highlight what can happen when this local consultation is neglected. In April 2013, the USFS initiated a prescribed burn in northwestern South Dakota that was intended to clear a relatively small area of grassland. Wind and unusually dry ground conditions quickly turned this planned 100-acre burn into an out-of-control 16,000-acre blaze that torched millions of dollars of private property. Two years later, a similar burn was initiated in Wind Cave National Park. The Cold Brook fire, as it became known, quickly grew larger than what could be handled by crews on the ground, requiring considerable local firefighting resources. This fire also burned thousands of acres – fortunately within park boundaries. In both cases, had the USFS and NPS consulted with state and local officials, neither of the fires likely would have been started in the first place.

The collaboration concept is actually pretty simple. The farmers, ranchers, and state and local officials who walk the land on a daily basis – many of them have done so for years – are in the best position possible to help determine potential risks before prescribed burns are set. Many of these local property owners and officials themselves support prescribed burns, and when they are consulted, can help make sure burns are set on days when the danger is low.  

I’ve been advocating to make this local collaboration part of the law, and we’re a step closer to achieving that goal. My provision, which includes key portions of a standalone bill I introduced last year, the Prescribed Burn Approval Act of 2015, was unanimously approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee. If enacted, this common-sense approach would help streamline communication between federal agencies and folks in local communities and help prevent future out-of-control burns, which would protect landowners from unintended and potentially damaging consequences.   

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