To protect forests from wildfires, Utah and feds launch $20 million effort

Utah will get up to $20 million over the next four years to protect communities and watersheds in forest areas from the threat of catastrophic wildfire, Gov. Gary Herbert announced Tuesday.

Under Utah’s Shared Stewardship agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service, the state will start two large, forest restoration projects intended to head off large unwanted fires in critical areas, Herbert’s office said in a news release. They include the upper Provo River project, located on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, and the Canyons project, located on the Manti-La Sal National Forest.

The Canyons project, which is currently undergoing an environmental review, would clear about half the beetle-killed Engelmann spruce on 30,000 acres on central Utah’s Wasatch Plateau. The 171,000-acre project area also includes thinning, prescribed burns and reseeding in an effort to nurse an ailing ecosystem back to health and restore aspen groves that have been displaced by conifers after years of fire suppression and livestock grazing.

The new forest-management accord signed last May “expedites" reviews and lower bureaucratic hurdles for such projects.

“This agreement strengthens the already strong partnership between the Forest Service and the State of Utah,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in the statement. “Through Shared Stewardship, Utah and the Forest Service are working together to identify landscape-scale priorities and build capacity to improve forest conditions.”

In May, Perdue and Herbert signed the stewardship agreement. Tuesday’s announcement puts it into action. Utah is the third state to have such an agreement, which does not affect Utah’s ongoing petition to loosen Roadless Rule restrictions on logging the 4 million acres of national forest that are in inventoried roadless areas.

“This influx of resources allows the state and USDA Forest Service to begin immediately to address the state’s most critical forest and watershed needs,” said Herbert. “By working collaboratively with our federal partners and under the Shared Stewardship agreement we can quickly respond to the most pressing issues faced by land managers."

A warming climate, years of drought, spreading beetle infestations that are killing trees and an historic legacy of fire suppression has left many areas overgrown, choked with deadfall and primed for “catastrophic wildfires."

Utah officials expect the agreement to build on existing programs and investments in restoring degraded forests. For the program’s first year, Utah and the Forest Service will each kick in $2 million toward treatments in two landscape-level projects, according to Brian Cottam, the director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. One is on the Wasatch Plateau, the other in the western Uinta Mountains.

“Both are in line with the overarching goals of the agreement: protection of communities and of watersheds and water sources,” Cottam said. “You hear the term ‘random acts of conservation,’ but in order to make a difference in reducing wildfire risk we have to approach and implement these projects at a much larger scale.”

For the past few years the Forest Service has worked on the Upper Provo project, targeting vast swaths of dead lodgepole pine blanketing the western Uintas — scenic land used heavily for camping, fishing, skiing, hunting and snowmobiling.

This project was initially approved on 91,000 acres in 2015, but it would be expanded by another 5,000 acres under a proposal to treat additional areas with non-commercial thinning, prescribed fire, mechanical treatments and planting.

What happens next?

First • The Forest Service will expedite environmental reviews of the projects. That will enable the agency to complete additional restoration work in priority areas.

Second • Utah and the Forest Service will increase fire prevention education and outreach to reduce the number of fire started by people.

Third • The state and Forest Service will develop strategies to increase the involvement of small businesses in this area.