Forest Service to spend millions to reduce risk of catastrophic fire in the Wasatch and western Uintas

The funds will come from money appropriated under last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Visitors to Mirror Lake in the western Uintas walk the path around the lake, August 6, 2017. This fire prone region of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest will be among those targeted for treatments to reduce fire risk under a program announced Thursday by the U.S. Forest Service.

The U.S. Forest Service announced a new round of projects aimed at reducing the wildfire risk in Utah and other Western states where communities are increasingly under threat of catastrophic fire thanks to poor forest health made worse by climate change.

Using money appropriated under last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, $25 million will be spent this year on projects in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache and Dixie national forests, which have identified areas in dire need of treatments that will include mechanical thinning and prescribed fire. The areas targeted for work include the central Wasatch, western Uinta and Pine Valley mountains.

“With the announcement today, we’re going to be able to do the work that we have wanted to do for years and haven’t had the resources to do it,” Intermountain Regional Forester Mary Farnsworth said. “The chief of the Forest Service is going to permit us to use the authorities granted in the bipartisan infrastructure law to do some expedited work.”

She called the new spending “epic” compared to the past four years when $20 million was invested across the entire state.

“The investment is incredibly sizable. For the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache this year, the investment is roughly $18 million,” Farnsworth said. “That’s a lot of money. And it far exceeds any of the investments we’ve been able to do throughout my whole career.”

These projects are part of a massive initiative undertaken by the Forest Service to address what it is calling the West’s wildfire crisis. As the region warmed and became more arid in recent decades, wildfires have become increasingly destructive, abetted by past forest management practices. Over the past decade, some 73 million acres have burned, destroying 80,000 structures.

(U.S. Forest Service) Utah's Pine Valley Mountains in Dixie National Forest.

Under the forest health initiative, officials hope to reduce wildfire risks across 80,000 square miles of public and private land over the next decade. While the money is available under bills passed last year, the labor might be hard to find to complete all the projects, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service, told the Associated Press.

He warned that “draconian” budget cuts floated by some Republicans, who now control the U.S. House, could also undermine the Democratic administration’s plans. The work is projected to cost up to $50 billion. Last year’s climate and infrastructure bills combined directed about $5 billion toward the effort.

The new round of spending that totals $490 million targets 11 areas on 26.7 million acres across 10 Western states.

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

Extending a rare gesture of praise for a Democratic administration’s land management priorities, Republican Utah Gov. Spencer Cox welcomed Thursday’s announcement.

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

Sen. Mitt Romney was the only member of Utah’s all-Republican delegation to champion that $1.2 trillion legislation, which advanced some of President Joe Biden’s spending priorities in addition to forest health. Rep. Burgess Owens, whose Utah district includes national forest to be treated under the plan, ridiculed the bill as “Democrats’ socialist tax-and-spend package.”

Meanwhile, Romney praised Vilsack for moving forward on the latest round of spending that supports forest health.

“I was proud to help negotiate the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which will better position Utah and our country to meet the infrastructure-related challenges of the 21st century,” Romney said Friday. “It is imperative that we improve strategies which bolster wildfire resilience and prevent future wildfires from becoming catastrophic disasters in our state and across the West, which is why I 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 in which federal agencies teamed with the state to conduct treatments on 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 ownership where the fire hazard is rated as high or very high on 382,000 acres.

“We will increase opportunities to use prescribed fire and wildland fire to support the suppression of wildfires by creating or strengthening strategic fuel breaks,” the plan states for the Utah projects. “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. Next year’s spending is to increase from $18 million to $24 million.

The Dixie project will focus on 400,000 acres around Pine Valley in Washington County. The plan is to treat about 63% of national forest land within the landscape, or about 157,000 acres, protecting the communities of Pinto, New Harmony, Enterprise and Central.

“It includes fuel reduction to prevent uncharacteristic wildfire. Other purposes include protecting infrastructure which includes powerlines and gas lines,” Dixie Forest Supervisor Kevin Wright said. “We also want to improve the watershed conditions, improve water quality and improve the landscape here on the forest.”

There will be no timber sales associated with the Dixie work, which will mostly involve taking out pinyon pine and juniper. The goal is to treat 6,554 acres this year and 50,000 to 80,000 acres over 7 to 10 years.