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House measures seek local control of forests

Published March 4, 2013 6:52 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A House panel on Monday endorsed legislation aimed at empowering local government officials to log or otherwise "mitigate" national forests if they believe they "may adversely affect" public health and safety.

Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, unveiled HB164 Monday and a sister resolution in the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, where he and his allies argued the U.S. Forest Service has mismanaged federal forest lands to the point that they are at undue risk of burning and al-Qaeda is exploring how to use them as a weapon of terror.

Fueling this legislation is last year's busy fire season, which burned 413,000 acres in Utah. Two of those fires exemplify what is wrong with federal policies, according to Roberts' HJR15, which the committee also endorsed in a largely party-line vote. The committee on Tuesday takes up a similar resolution, HJR14, which asserts state "sovereignty" over water rights.

The Shingle Creek Fire, a human-caused conflagration that threatened the second-home community of Duck Creek, could have been stopped in its infancy had the Forest Service allowed Kane and Iron counties to attack it with four bulldozers that were available, Roberts' resolution contends. But the agency allowed only one, limiting the fire break's width to a single blade and its depth to two inches, said committee chair Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab. As a result, the fire was able to spread and consume 8,000 acres of forest.

The lightning-sparked Seeley Fire has left Huntington Canyon at serious risk of erosion, but the Forest Service is not taking sufficient steps to protect the watershed, Roberts alleged.

"If we are good environmental stewards, we are not going to allow this to happen," he said. "There were a number fires that could have been prevented or put out much sooner were it not for the jurisdictional struggles and confusion over federal lands many of these fires were burning on."

HB164 would set up a procedure to enable action by local authorities. They must first notify the land-management agency of the situation that poses a risk in writing and specify a prescribed course of action along with a deadline.

If the agency fails to respond or act, the local officials may perform the work they deem necessary to address the problem. As long as they follow the law's guidelines "in good faith," the state would indemnify them for any damage they do, Roberts said.

Members of the committee were troubled that the bill gives officials who lack expertise in forest management a great deal of discretion in deciding when a forest "may" pose a risk and how to address that risk. Democratic Rep. Joel Briscoe of Salt Lake City voiced doubts about the bill's constitutionality and the state's liability exposure arising from its indemnification provisions.

bmaffly@sltrib.com