Private interests ask for more Utah taxpayer money to ‘roller fell’ forests, lobby against wolves

At least one lawmaker pushes back against more funds to fight wolves, noting little return on investment.

(106 Reforestation) This image from a promotional video shows how a Utah company called 106 Reforestation bulldozes overgrown forests on the Tavaputs Plateau with the hope of restoring aspen that have been crowded out by subalpine fir and other conifers. The Utah Legislature has appropriated $4.4 million dollars since 2019 to promote the experimental forest treatments as a way to enhance stream flows.

Money for lobbying against wolves and chopping down trees to free up water are big topics on Utah’s Capitol Hill once more.

Mike Siaperas, founder of 106 Reforestation, asked lawmakers for another $700,000 to fund his roller-felling operation. The controversial method strings a chain between two bulldozers to rip out a tremendous amount of trees. Meanwhile, one of Siaperas’s biggest supporters — conservative political activist Don Peay — wants another $500,000 to fight for the right to shoot wolves.

A typical conifer tree seen in Utah’s forests guzzles 60,000 gallons a year, Siaperas told a natural resources appropriations subcommittee Thursday. His tree removal process, which can fell 40 or more acres of forest in a day, is ”like going in and removing cancer from a body,” Siaperas said.

He said uprooting conifers and creating conditions for aspen to grow also freed up enough water on his own Tavaputs Plateau ranch that he was able to build a pond.

“What I’m trying to do,” Siaperas said, “... is have a hydrologist out three or four years down the road and prove we’re generating more water.”

Scientists have said thinning Utah’s forests won’t solve its water shortage problems.

Researchers with Utah State University also specifically studied Siaperas’s roller-felling method and shared their findings last year. While they found the process generated more aspen stands, it also potentially increased wildfire risk, compacted and damaged soil, and only makes sense in certain landscapes that are relatively flat. It also doesn’t seem to work any better than other forestry management tools Utah’s resource managers have long deployed.

Although Siaperas spoke at length about the benefits of his roller-felling process, the $700,000 he’s seeking would go to his Atlantis USA Foundation, a nonprofit he says benefits veterans.

“I’ve been hanging around a lot of veterans lately,” Siaperas told lawmakers. “They’ve been coming to my areas where I do treatment. They all want jobs.”

Lawmakers gave the Atlantis USA Foundation $1 million last year. They’ve handed off another $3.4 million in taxpayer funds to Siaperas’s roller felling projects over the last five years, including on his own private ranch property.

Have the millions Utah shelled out to fight federal wolf protections paid off?

Wolf lobbyists have seen a multimillion-dollar windfall from lawmakers as well. Big Game Forever, a spinoff of Peay’s nonprofit Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, has lapped up more than $5 million since 2012, even though a 2013 audit found the group mismanaged taxpayer funds.

The founder of Big Game Forever, Ryan Benson, is also CEO of the defunct Lake Restoration Solutions, a company that pushed to dredge Utah Lake and build an island city. That company went bankrupt last year. Court filings show Benson lent some of Big Game Forever’s money to his lake-dredging business, a debt his state-funded nonprofit then forgave.

Big Game Forever hasn’t had a contract with the state since 2020. Instead, Kansas-based nonprofit Hunter Nation started cashing in on Utah’s war on wolves — with Peay’s support. Lawmakers gave the group $500,000 last year.

“What this funding will do, is continue to support and have a [Utah] voice at the table,” said Sen. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, the lawmaker requesting another $500,000 on Hunter Nation’s behalf.

“Without it,” Owens continued, with Peay at his side, “we have no representation or very little.”

(Utah Legislature) Don Peay, left, and Sen. Derrin Owens answer Utah lawmakers' questions about a $500,000 appropriation request for anti-wolf lobbying on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024.

But Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, pushed back on the request. A small corner of northeast Utah, which mostly lies east of Interstate 15 and extends about as far south as Ogden, is exempt from federal regulations for gray wolves since it’s considered part of the wider Yellowstone region where the predator is in recovery.

But across the rest of the state, the animal is considered an endangered species. It’s illegal to hunt, harass, trap, shoot or harm them without permission from the federal government. That status hasn’t changed despite Utah lawmakers shelling out public funds to private wolf lobbyists for more than a decade.

“I haven’t been supportive of this blank check,” Snider said, “... without much accountability.”

The lawmaker questioned whether wolf funding should go to the state’s Division of Wildlife Resources instead.

“I appreciate your stewardship of state resources,” Peay said. “I never had one nickel of state money until 2016.”

Snider balked at that statement. Big Game Forever inked its first contract with the state in 2012, which came with a $300,000 payment. Peay cofounded Big Game Forever with Benson.

Peay implied lobbying efforts did indeed pay off — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service briefly delisted gray wolves in 2021. But a district court overturned that decision months later.

“A California judge,” Peay said, “who probably doesn’t know a wolf from a grizzly bear put them back on the list.”

Utah’s neighboring state of Colorado introduced 10 gray wolves late last year and intends to release more, upping a sense of urgency among local anti-wolf advocates.

“The hundreds of millions of dollars we put into wildlife,” Owens said, “maybe we should consider if we should spend that money if we’re just going to turn it [over] to the highest-level predator on the planet to destroy.”

The lawmaker said he’d like to see radio collars that detect when wolves cross state lines into Utah.

“One day, maybe ... someone can create this,” Owens said, “[and] it buzzes them to stay back, or just kills them, because they are trespassing.”

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