By Sarah Pridgeon
The question of whether controlled burns should continue to take place on the front side of Devils Tower will be debated this coming winter. Tower Superintendent Reed Robinson addressed the situation with the County Commissioners, inviting input to plan for the future.
In May, high winds caused a 300-acre prescribed fire at the front of the tower to escape control, sparking controversy over its impact on the appearance of the landmark. Ogden Driskill summarized the problem with burns at the tower as one of aesthetics: when visitors now arrive, he said, they are greeted by dead and burned trees rather than a lush pine forest.
“Regardless of who it is, whether it’s Senator Driskill or any other citizen in the county, I’d be willing to sit down and discuss the specific issues, because I don’t know what they are other than what I heard that day,” said Robinson, explaining that Driskill’s input and some anecdotal comments on Facebook are the only feedback he has had.
Robinson told the commissioners that he met with Driskill, Fire Warden Gari Gill and a State Forester just days after the burn. He believes there is more to be discussed than anecdotes and would like to know specifically what can be done to find common ground.
“I don’t want to say compromise, because when you say compromise that means nobody’s happy,” he said. “I think there is some way to reach common ground and in my opinion we’ve got plenty of time.”
Gill noted that the Belle Fourche Unit within which the front of the tower falls is a tough unit to burn. In his opinion, the view of the tower that greets visitors as they drive towards it is the main value of the monument.
“I had the pleasure of meeting with Reed on a couple of occasions and I’ve seen his vision for the park. It’s probably the best I’ve seen it,” he said.
“The biggest value we have is people driving into there and seeing the beauty of it and we lose a little bit each time. I think that is where Mr. Driskill has felt more than a little upset.”
Prescribed burns are used on the Belle Fourche Unit as part of its fire management plan, which calls for dead fuels to be removed to encourage native prairie grasses and forbs to grow. The area in front of the tower is burned on a 12 to 15 year cycle.
“We all believe in the same thing: prescribed burn is a good program if it’s managed correctly. I think there’s times when we try to get things done in too big of a hurry,” said Gill.
“I can’t say enough about prescribed burning because it’s been used for ages to do a multitude of things but, like Reed, I think we need to sit down and put forward a plan for the future.”
Robinson suggested that representatives from the tower, county and state sit down this winter to plan for the future. The environmental conditions at the time of the May burn, he said, seemed perfect due to the late spring and high precipitation.
“Based on the science that I was listening to, it was an optimum time to burn. Another week later, it wouldn’t have been. I definitely stand by the plan that I signed,” he explained.
“I signed that plan with full knowledge of the advice from science, weather and my background. I have no regrets at all. I wish that there was less acrimony about it but I can’t go back on my decision, I thought it was the right decision at the time.”
However, he added, that doesn’t mean the management plan can’t change. He stressed that, as a recent arrival to Wyoming, he has a duty to listen to and understand the community and understands that he is accountable to landowners, county officials, his peers within other agencies, the 25 tribes and others.
“I can’t be running around making decisions unilaterally,” he said.
Robinson pointed to one particular lesson from May’s prescribed burn that will already alter the park’s management plan in the future.
“There is a strong education component I think we can bump up regardless of what we do, because I think there was some acrimony in the public about why the park was burning during a county burn ban. We don’t necessarily have to recognize that,” he explained.
“We have some opportunity here – any situation like this is an opportunity to do things better. This is the second time probably that a superintendent has spoken to a group like this regarding the same burn unit and there’s no sense in a superintendent 15 years from now standing here again answering the same questions.”