Fire is as natural - and as important - as spring flooding to the natural ecosystem. Long before people began manipulating the environment for their own ends, fires occurred every 15 to 30 years in the Ponderosa pine forests of the Wyoming Black Hills. The fires removed dead needles, branches, and trees from the forest floor, thinned competing trees, and helped to maintain a diverse ecosystem.
But ranchers, settlers, entrepreneurs, and, until recently, even the Park Service saw fire as "bad," something which destroyed a beautiful and useful forest. All fires were suppressed. Instead of promoting a rich, diverse ecosystem, fire suppression has decreased species diversity, resulting in one basic species - Ponderosa pine. Plants requiring sunlight and open space are seldom seen. If fires were to occur naturally, the overstory canopy would remain open, allowing plants that require sunlight to thrive.
Fire suppression has also allowed a tremendous build-up of pine needles, branches, and fallen trees on the forest floor. Such an accumulation of fuel could prove disastrous in the event of an accidental fire.
Resource managers now realize the importance of fire as a natural tool for maintaining a healthy and diverse ecosystem. Prescribed burns - fires set intentionally when weather and natural fuel conditions are most advantageous - are utilized. Prescribed burns help eliminate the accumulation of dangerous fuel and open the forest canopy to sunlight, thus encouraging the cycle of regeneration. Resource managers will eventually be burning on the 15 to 30 year cycle that occurs naturally in this ecosystem.
Here in the monument, burned trees are not salvage logged, for they provide habitat for birds, insects and other life forms. As the burned trees decompose, nutrients are added to the soil.
The prescribed burn areas which are visible at Devils Tower today were burned in 1993 and in the spring of 1998.
Did You Know?
Eradication programs have reduced the black-tailed prairie dog’s range from thousands of square miles to a few scattered preserves like this one at Devils Tower National Monument. They now inhabit about 2% of the area they once occupied 200 years ago.