Utah lawmaker complains that ‘chain-smoking’ chimps are running the national forests

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, listens during a House Judiciary Standing Committee meeting at the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018.

Republican lawmakers are seeking to indemnify county officials who log federally managed forests without authorization from the U.S. Forest Service or other U.S. agencies — as long as they do it to abate a “catastrophic public nuisance."

In explaining the need for the measure, the sponsor of HB99 likened Utah’s national forests to ”a dynamite factory run by chain-smoking chimpanzees.”

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, has long alleged environmental regulations, litigation from activists and a lack of resources prevent federal land managers from adequately managing forests that have become overgrown and primed for disastrous fires.

“Let’s give our counties the ability to protect their water, their wildlife and their people and property,” Ivory told the House Natural Resources, Agricultural and Environmental Quality on Thursday.

The critical exhibit in his case for the bill was the 2017 Brian Head Fire, which laid waste to Panguitch’s municipal watershed. Garfield County officials had asked the Dixie National Forest to take action to protect that watershed two years earlier, but the forest did not respond, according to County Commissioner David Tebbs.

The committee advanced Ivory’s bill over nay votes from two Democratic members.

“It seems like we have the potential here for writing a blank check,” said Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City.

Lawmakers expressed concerns about how the state would determine whether the local officials’ actions are lawful and “reasonable,” as required under the bill.

Existing law spells out several steps officials must take to qualify for state indemnification. They must, for example, consult with professional foresters and the Utah attorney general, pursue all remedies allowed under the law, and coordinate with state and federal agencies. HB99 adds a requirement to also obtain approval from the Legislative Management Committee.