The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Groups Protest Prairie Burning as Cultural Throwback

by Michelle Chen

Sept. 15, 2006 – In an attempt to recreate "history" by setting tracts of protected prairie land on fire, administrators of a national park in Washington State have inflamed environmental watchdogs, who call the deliberate scorching "illegal and ill-advised."

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On Wednesday, three public-interest groups sent a letter to the National Park Service decrying the Olympic National Park’s plans to burn designated wilderness areas in the name of recreating "cultural landscapes." The signatories were Olympic Park Associates, the Montana-based Wilderness Watch, and the national Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)

The fires – part of the Park’s recently launched, multi-year Fire Management Plan –would strip trees and vegetation that have sprung up on two wilderness sites, Ahlstrom’s and Roose’s Prairies.

According to a 2003 report by researchers with Olympic National Park and the University of California, historical evidence suggests that Native Americans, and later, early European settlers, managed the land through periodic use of controlled fire. In the 2003 environmental assessment of the Fire Management Plan, the Park Service stated, "such burning might be replicated" by the Park’s management in order to "maintain a cultural scene."

Olympic Park spokesperson Barb Maynes said of the prairie areas, "The wilderness character includes traces of people’s historic presence." Maynes added that the burning served the purpose of "retaining the windows into the past."

Environmentalists say that using using fire to simulate a human-made landscape would resurrect a long-dead cultural resource by destroying a natural one.

But some environmentalists say the authorities want to resurrect a long-dead cultural resource by destroying a natural one.

In the letter, the groups argued that artificially simulating homesteader landscapes would be "as antithetical to wilderness preservation as is imaginable."

The fire plan authorizes periodic "prescribed burning" on seventeen acres of prairie from late July through October over several years. Maynes told The NewStandard that the Park is now preparing to conduct an initial three-acre burn as soon as weather conditions are suitable, which could be within the next few months.

While the Parks Service argues that reviving historic burning practices would be a restorative measure, critics say the plan violates the Wilderness Act, the main law protecting designated wild lands.

Drawing on previous court rulings, the groups argued that the Act bars the use of artificial methods for the re-creation of a manmade landscape in wilderness areas. In the letter, the groups stated that as long as the intention was to reconstruct a human habitat, even the less mechanical method of setting controlled fires was no more legitimate than chainsaws or bulldozers.

Generally, the Wilderness Act mandates protection for lands and natural resources that "are untrammeled by man" and retain their "primeval character and influence."

Wilderness Watch Executive Director George Nickas told TNS that the prescribed burning plan defies the very definition of wilderness. "It’s a tremendous irony," he remarked, "that they’re trying to recreate these manmade scenes in one of the few areas we as a nation have set aside to be free of that very scene, of these human-built environments."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


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Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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