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Prescribed Fire in Wilderness Research Team Honored by National USFS Award

A firefighter supervises a prescribed burn in the GMUG National Forest.

This project embodies the spirit of the Center for Public Lands and the Clark School of Environment and Sustainability

On December 14 at the 2023 National Wilderness Awards, the U.S. Forest Service honored a research team from Western Colorado University’s Center for Public Lands with the Excellence in Wilderness Research Award for their paper, Prescribed Fire and U.S. Wilderness Areas: Barriers and Opportunities for Wilderness Fire Management in a Time of Change. The research team included graduate student Dagny Signorelli, who is earning her Master of Science in Ecology, and Master of Environmental Management student Alyssa Worsham, along with faculty members Dr. Melanie Armstrong and Dr. Jonathan Coop.

The paper was a synthesis of the discussions held during the Wilderness and Fire Workshop in Gunnison, Colorado, in December 2022 and talks about the threats posed to wilderness by fire exclusion, some barriers to ideal fire management, and opportunities for managers to use prescribed fire as a tool to restore degraded wilderness landscapes.

The workshop was a collaboration between Western Colorado University’s Center for Public Lands and the Rocky Mountain Research Station’s Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute. It brought together participants from land management agencies, Tribes, and organizations from across the country to consider the dilemma posed by prescribing fire within wilderness areas.

“This project embodies the spirit of the Center for Public Lands and the Clark School of Environment and Sustainability: it was enacted by graduate students working across disciplines. The research was co-produced with public land managers, and our product aims to inform the work of the people who wrestle each day with complex management decisions,” Armstrong said. “It is a great honor to step outside the box of traditional research and have the end result recognized by the people most involved in managing our nation’s wilderness areas.”

Dr. Jonathan Coop said that in addition to acknowledging the work of all the project participants, the award indicates an increasing recognition within the U.S. Forest Service that the fire management paradigms of the last century need to evolve to keep up with the times.

“Ecological science and indigenous knowledge tell us that we need fire on the landscape in order to sustain many of the values these places provide,” Coop said. “Prescribed fire may be the best means we have of getting the right kind of fire on the ground, and it is rewarding to see an emerging consensus around this view receiving official recognition.

Author Credit: Bridget Eastep

Photo Credit: Courtesy

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