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County officials concerned with tourism ask forest service to suspend prescribed burns

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Posted at 10:08 PM, May 23, 2014
and last updated 2014-05-24 00:08:31-04

GARFIELD COUNTY, Utah -- The sights at Bryce Canyon National Park attract more than a million people every year, but just outside of it, local residents are complaining of an eyesore they believe is turning tourists away.

“They hate it. They hate it. They can’t see. They can’t enjoy their visit,” said Clare Ramsay, who is a commissioner for Garfield County.

Ramsay is talking about the prescribed burns set by the U.S. Forest Service.

Every spring and fall, the agency sets them around the state to prevent wildfires and preserve habitats and plants. However, in Garfield County, officials are arguing they're doing more harm than good.

“People come from all over the world to see Bryce Canyon National Park,” Ramsay said. “It’s one of the most beautiful parks in the world, and they get there and find the place all smoked in: they can’t see the points.”

The county has filed an emergency resolution to put a stop to them, with a 150 day moratorium on prescribed burning of the Dixie National Forest Lands in Garfield County. The document cites issues such as economic harm, health hazards, and a damaged visitor experience.

“Here we are beginning, just beginning, what looks like we’re going to have a real good tourism season, and bang they set these fires up there,” Ramsay said.

Prescribed burns scheduled to take place within the county this spring include the 400 acre Ahlstrom Hollow fire and the 300 acre Dave’s Hollow fire. The projects, which are aimed at improving forest health, would be getting rid of bigger problems for the area in the future.

“If you delay a burn in a certain area, or a treatment, then you just have an increased risk in that area of a high intensity wildfire,” said Christine Brown, a Forest Fuels Specialist for the U.S. Forest Service.

Prior to beginning any prescribed burn, the U.S. Forest Service must receive approval from the Division of Air Quality and the National Environmental Protection Agency, in order to avoid any harm to nearby areas.

“We have very specific conditions under which we burn,” Brown said.

Delaying them could have long term impacts.

“Fuels continue to build up year after year,” Brown said. “And so that increases the risk of a high intensity fire in that area.”

But in the short term, Garfield County officials don’t want the fires near their biggest attraction, this season, and they’re willing to take the U.S. Forest Service to task in order to put them out for good.

“People don’t come from all over the world to see Bryce Canyon socked in with smoke two or three times a year,” Ramsay said.

On Tuesday, Ramsay and the two other commissioners plan to vote to implement the moratorium. Forest service officials have agreed to suspend burns in the county next week, in hopes the two sides can meet and arrive at a compromise.