Prescribed burns in south-east Utah’s national parks

A fire crew member performs prescribed burns on invasive plants as part of a program led by the National Parks Service.

During March and April of this year, National Park Service officials have been and will continue to perform prescribed burns throughout the Canyonlands and Arches national parks to combat the spread of invasive plants within these ecosystems.

“[The NPS] uses wildfire or prescribed fire for helping us to get rid of invasive species,” explained Jacob Suter, a law enforcement ranger and one of four permanent employees in the Canyonlands National Park’s river district. He is the wildland fire coordinator for Southeast Utah Group, the collection of all NPS-run sites in the Arches-Canyonlands region. “We have various crews throughout the park that go out and perform these removal projects, and then from there, we’ll pile those invasive species, we’ll go back and, when conditions are appropriate, we will burn that vegetation.”

Suter has over a decade of experience working with wildfires, holding qualifications as a wildland firefighting engine boss and as a prescribed fire burn boss. He explained that the local ecology does not support a broadcast burn, a practice in which an entire area is lit and the fire is allowed to move through the landscape, consuming underbrush and other debris. Instead, the NPS uses a targeted approach, deliberately locating and piling up invasive species to burn.

These burns are important to the health of the native ecosystem, and the impact on tourists is minimal. “The biggest thing is, ‘is somebody going to see some smoke in one of their pictures from a viewpoint?’ You know, they’re going to be upset by that,” explained Suter. “But we try to do our best to inform the public anytime we’re going to do any of those operations.”

Staffing the fire crews is one of the biggest challenges of performing these burns. “We need help! Wildland firefighting in general is suffering; the Park Service is suffering. We need people that are excited about the outdoors, and we need people that want to do land management,” said Suter. “I won’t sugarcoat it: wildland firefighting is hard work. [But] the pay is getting better.”

Despite the challenges, the parks continue to prioritize the prevention of these invasive species through prescribed burns.

Suter invites anyone interested in helping manage wildland fires to reach out to local land management offices, such as the NPS, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.


Story by: Jacob Horne
Photo courtesy of Jacob Suter