Forest Service plans to spend millions to reduce risk of fire disaster in Wasatch and West Uintas

The US Forest Service announced a new round of projects aimed at reducing the risk of wildfires in Utah and other western states where communities are increasingly at risk of catastrophic fires due to poor forest condition being deteriorated by climate change .

Using funds made available under last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, this year $25 million will be spent on projects in the Uinta-Wasatch Cache and Dixie National Forests that have identified areas that need urgent attention, including mechanical thinning and prescribed fire. Areas proposed for work include the mountains of central Wasatch, western Uinta and Pine Valley.

“With today’s announcement, we will be able to do the work we have wanted to do for years and did not have the resources to do it,” said Mary Farnsworth, Intermountain Regional Forester. “The head of the Forest Service will allow us to use the powers granted in the bipartisan Infrastructure Act to conduct expedited work.”

She called the new spending “epic” compared to the last four years of $20 million in investment across the state.

“The investment is incredibly large. For the Uinta-Wasatch cache, the investment this year is approximately $18 million,” Farnsworth said. “That’s a lot of money. And it far exceeds any investment we’ve been able to make in my entire career.”

These projects are part of a massive initiative by the Forest Service to deal with the West’s so-called wildfire crisis. As the region warmed and drier in recent decades, wildfires became increasingly destructive, encouraged by previous forest management practices. In the last decade, around 73 million acres have burned and 80,000 buildings have been destroyed.

(US Forest Service) Utah’s Pine Valley Mountains in the Dixie National Forest.

As part of the Forest Health Initiative, officials hope to reduce wildfire risk on 80,000 square miles of public and private land over the next decade. While money is available under bills passed last year, the labor force could be hard to find to complete all projects, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the forest service, told the Associated Press.

He warned that “draconian” budget cuts by some Republicans, who now control the US House of Representatives, could also undermine the Democratic government’s plans. The work is expected to cost up to $50 billion. Last year’s climate and infrastructure bills together poured about $5 billion into the effort.

The new round of spending, totaling $490 million, will target 11 areas on 26.7 million acres in 10 western states.

[Related: Are trees ‘the enemy?’ Some Utah lawmakers claim overgrown forests suck too much water]

Republican Utah Gov. Spencer Cox made a rare gesture of praise for a Democratic government’s land stewardship priorities and welcomed Thursday’s announcement.

“This is excellent news. The best way to prevent catastrophic wildfires is to actively and aggressively manage our forests, which costs money, and focus on the areas that need it most,” he said. “Better forest management means fewer and milder fires, which means saved lives and homes, cleaner air and water, more water in our reservoirs, and healthier forests for Utah residents.”

Senator Mitt Romney was the only member of the all-Republican delegation in Utah to lobbied for this $1.2 trillion legislation, which pushed ahead with some of President Joe Biden’s spending priorities in addition to forest health. Rep. Burgess Owens, whose Utah district includes the national forest under the plan, derided the bill as “the Democrats’ socialist tax and spending package.”

Meanwhile, Romney praised Vilsack for driving the latest round of spending in support of forest health.

“I was proud to help negotiate the bipartisan infrastructure bill that will better position Utah and our country to meet the infrastructure challenges of the 21st century,” Romney said Friday. “It is imperative that we improve policies that build wildfire resilience and prevent future wildfires from becoming catastrophic in our state and throughout the West. That’s why I’ve worked to ensure funding for critical areas like the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache and Pine Valley projects were included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill.”

The Utah projects are largely a continuation of Utah’s Watershed Restoration Initiative, where federal agencies have partnered with the state to provide treatments to 2.4 million acres over the past decade.

The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest Project covers 1.1 million acres in the central Wasatch, Stansbury and western Uinta Mountains. The land is a mix of federal, state, and private property, with 382,000 acres rated as high or very high in fire risk.

“We will increase the ability to use mandated fires and wildfires to assist in wildfire suppression by creating or strengthening strategic fuel disruptions,” the plan for the Utah projects reads. “This work will protect watersheds and restore forest health and resilience.”

The goal is to treat 14,200 acres this year and at least 105,000 acres over 7 to 10 years. Spending next year is expected to increase from $18 million to $24 million.

The Dixie project will be concentrated on 400,000 acres around Pine Valley in Washington County. The plan calls for treating approximately 63% of the national woodland within the landscape, or approximately 157,000 acres, to protect the communities of Pinto, New Harmony, Enterprise and Central.

“It includes fuel reduction to prevent uncharacteristic wildfires. Other purposes include protecting infrastructure, which includes power lines and gas lines,” said Dixie Forest Supervisor Kevin Wright. “We also want to improve the water catchment areas, improve the water quality and improve the landscape here at the forest.”

There will be no lumber sales related to the Dixie work which mainly involves taking out pinyon pine and juniper. The goal is to treat 6,554 acres this year and 50,000 to 80,000 acres in 7 to 10 years. Forest Service plans to spend millions to reduce risk of fire disaster in Wasatch and West Uintas

Justin Scaccy

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