A politician came up with the Great Salt Lake tree-thinning idea — not scientists

A Salt Lake County Council member says she is a biologist, but scientific experts don’t back her plan.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dea Theodore, who represents Salt Lake County Council District 6, poses for a portrait on Thursday, July 23, 2020.

The idea that chopping down trees is the solution to the Great Salt Lake’s impending doom appears to have originated with a county council member.

The tree-thinning notion has since trickled up to the Legislature and occasionally comes up in discussions about natural resource management. Local scientists with the U.S. Forest Service and Utah State University, however, recently studied the issue and found fewer trees in arid places like Utah have no impact on stream flows. In some cases, thinning could actually reduce the amount of water trickling down to rivers and lakes.

Salt Lake County Council Member Dea Theodore, a Republican from Sandy, either was not aware of this research or ignored it. She issued a letter to lawmakers and Gov. Spencer Cox last month, arguing forest management is “key” to saving the lake.

Theodore says she is a biologist in her county bio and on her personal websites. She has an undergraduate degree in biology, obtained from the University of Utah in 2013. She does not appear to have work experience in a scientific field or have published any scientific papers, and did not point to any professional experience when asked about it.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dea Theodore at a Salt Lake County Council meeting in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.

The council member has previously brought up questionable statistics when she attempted to link youth suicides to masking during the pandemic.

“We’ve relied on science a lot and my background is science,” Theodore said during a mask mandate debate in January 2022. “I believe in science. I love science. But it’s become clear the science is skewed in some ways.”

Thinning argument

A “fact sheet” Theodore attached to her letter about forest management included a few select scientific reports, news articles and state information on the Great Salt Lake’s elevation and evaporation to make her point. She credits one of her items to the Forest Service but it appears to have originated from a paper company in the Pacific Northwest. Her fact sheet also relies on gardening blogs.

While cities, water managers and lawmakers have invested heavily in conservation in recent years to address Utah’s shortages, Theodore said it is unlikely to make a difference for the Great Salt Lake, given the vast quantities of water it evaporates each year. She is dismissive of cutting water use by farms and alfalfa.

“Can we conserve our way out of this problem?” Theodore asks in the fact sheet. “It appears the answer is NO.”

State-sponsored research has shown the Great Salt Lake would be 11 feet higher today if not for human water consumption. Municipal use has shrunk the lake by one foot, while agricultural consumption has lowered it by seven feet. Mineral extraction, evaporation in reservoirs and impounded wetlands make up the remaining losses.

In an email, Theodore reiterated that thinning forests will make the biggest difference for the Great Salt Lake.

“As far as I can tell,” Theodore said, “my proposal is the only proposal that has the potential to substantially increase the amount of water flowing through our tributaries.”

In her fact sheet, Theodore points to the Salt Lake City 1999 Watershed Plan, which notes Big Cottonwood Canyon historically provides 51,238 acre-feet a year. She then claims Salt Lake Public Utilities said the canyon is currently only producing 20,000 acre-feet, and wonders where all the missing water has gone.

“Not only does this appear to be a net loss of tens of thousands of acre-feet of water flowing to the Great Salt Lake,” Theodore writes, “but it also seems to be endangering the public safety of residents of Big Cottonwood Canyon and its many guests.”

But the 20,000 acre-feet Theodore cited for Big Cottonwood is not its current water volume. It is a number water managers calculate as a “firm yield” — the water they can reliably count on for customers and residents, even in the worst drought conditions, from that source.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Donut Falls in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Tuesday June 12, 2018. Katya Wahl and Kennedy Dalley pause for a selfie.

Debunking misinformation

Drought and climate trends are bigger drivers of the availability of water in watersheds, not trees, said Salt Lake Public Utilities Director Laura Briefer, who appeared with forestry experts and ecology scientists at a County Council meeting last week.

“One of the things that I want to really make clear,” Briefer said at the council meeting, “is statements that indicate water conservation and other efforts will not make a difference for the Great Salt Lake are really concerning to me.”

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Laura Briefer says a few words during a panel discussion during the Great Salt Lake Summit at the Davis Conference Center in Layton, Wednesday, January 5, 2022.

Theodore notes 87% of Utah’s water is either taken up by trees or evaporates before it reaches streams and aquifers, arguing it therefore makes little sense to improve agricultural efficiencies when Utah could cut down trees instead.

But Brigham Young University ecology professor Ben Abbott told the County Council to think of Utah’s water like a bank serving many people and interests.

“[What] if I was talking about my own personal bank account, and I said, ‘Wait, shouldn’t I be able to borrow more, because the bank has a lot of money that comes in and goes out of it each year?’” Abbott said.

Like the money flowing through a bank, not all the water flowing through and used naturally by the environment is available for our use, he explained. And evaporation from the Great Salt Lake, along with the water trees soak up and release into the air, have cooling benefits that help regulate Utah’s climate and snowpack.

Abbott encouraged county leaders to focus their attention on practical solutions that will have the biggest impact in saving the Great Salt Lake, instead of distracting themselves with other theories.

“As much attention as this issue has gotten in the media and in conversations, even among family or friends,” Abbott said, “I still believe that we haven’t yet come to grips with how serious a threat this is.”

Theodore said her forest thinning proposal partly stems from her concerns over overgrown forests which could fuel catastrophic wildfires. Forest Service Salt Lake District Ranger Bekee Hotze acknowledged at last week’s meeting fire is a concern, then highlighted efforts to mitigate risk and protect local water supplies along the Wasatch Front.

‘I’ve never thought it was a possible solution [for] the Great Salt Lake’

Asked in an email late last week why she refers to herself as a biologist and whether she had any professional experience, Theodore instead listed out the credentials of Briefer, Abbott and Hotze. She claimed they have no expertise in high-altitude snowpack. She also questioned Briefer’s salary.

Asked whether she consulted local forestry experts or scientists when drafting her fact sheet, Theodore said she “often” conferred with Mike Styler, who formerly headed the Utah Department of Natural Resources. She said she also relied on Randall Julander, longtime supervisor of the Utah Snow Survey.

Reached by phone, Julander noted past clear-cutting events resulted in flooding and measurable increases in the water flowing from forests. There is not much data, he added, showing the effects of removing 20% or 50% of a forest’s trees. But he denied tree thinning would save the Great Salt Lake.

“I’ve never thought it was a possible solution [for] the Great Salt Lake,” Julander said. “In fact, most of the stuff they’re proposing is merely window dressing.”

Mass logging across forests near the Wasatch Front from the 1860s to 1930s resulted in flooding events, Julander said, so much so that resource managers worked to revegetate and restore the landscapes. But during the same period, the Great Salt Lake continued a downward trend.

And even if Utah were to clear cut trees in the Cottonwood Canyons and other forests near the Wasatch Front — something Julander calls an unrealistic, “nuclear option” — the resulting runoff and floods would ultimately be a small blip in the context of the lake’s needs.

“If you really want to have water in the Great Salt Lake, the thinning of forests over Utah, Wyoming and Idaho ... it’s huge. The number of thinning projects you’d have to do over each one of those forests is simply astronomical,” said Julander, who retired in 2018. “From a pragmatic standpoint, it’s dead on arrival.”

Styler said in his decades of resource management experience, reduction in conifer trees specifically — like pines, firs and pinyon — results in more water reaching aquifers. It follows, he said, that it would also mean more water reached the Great Salt Lake.

“If you get more water into the system,” Styler said in an interview, “eventually it’s got to go to the lake.”

But Styler deferred to Julander as the “expert,” acknowledging with discussions about the Great Salt Lake, “you’re talking about a complex system.”

This article is published through The Great Salt Lake Collaborative: A Solutions Journalism Initiative, a partnership of news, education and media organizations that aims to inform readers about the Great Salt Lake.