What person in their right mind would strike a match and start a fire that has the potential to burn thousands of acres in Badlands National Park? Whom else but the park staff! Once detailed fire management plans are developed, specially trained firefighters ignite prescribed fires under controlled conditions to return fire to its natural role as a dominant force that influences the prairie ecosystem.
Prior to the 20th century, fire in the Badlands was mostly natural process with frequent low to moderate intensity fires that served to maintain the prairie ecosystem. Native Americans of the region recognized this aspect of the prairie ecosystem and occasionally employed fire to their advantage around lodges and hunting grounds. Since the early 20th century and establishment of Badlands National Monument in 1939, nearly all fires within park boundaries were put out before they spread very far. By removing fire from the prairie, early park managers did not realize that they were damaging the very prairie they were attempting to protect. The lack of natural fires over time increased the amount and density of vegetation plus allowed for non-native plants to establish themselves.
Research in recent years has demonstrated that natural ecosystems need fire, and park managers have changed their techniques to include fire in managing natural ecosystems. Oustside of protected natural areas, present land use patterns now disrupt the size, frequency, and intensity of fires that once spread across the prairie, but wildfires are still a threat. Within park areas, managers now use prescribed fire as a tool to reintroduce fire to natural ecosystems like the prairie. Fire now serves to reinvigorate declining and stagnant vegetation, release nutrients back into the soil, create variably aged vegetation communities to maintain biodiversity, control exotic plants, and reduce fuels that otherwise would accumulate to unnaturally high levels. Monitoring plots are established to determine the effectiveness of a prescribed fire in producing the desired resource management objectives. Similar to the way predators keep prey populations at a healthy balance, fire maintains plant communities in a healthy, dynamic relationship with the rest of the prairie's limited resources.
If you have the opportunity to see a burn in progress, please keep a safe distance and beware of smoke conditions that may be a hazard to driving. If you see a patchwork of black on the landscape with smooth edges, know that the park is applying the best available research and techniques to maintain the Badlands prairie ecosystem in it's natural state for all who come to visit now and in the future.