It took more than a spark to start the Brian Head Fire.
The 2017 blaze — which torched 71,000 acres of land, destroyed 13 homes and cost $34 million to fight — has been pinned on an area cabin owner. But just as much blame — if not more — should be leveled at an outdated federal law that regulates major public works.
The National Environmental Policy Act, which took effect 50 years ago, forced the shutdown of a timber mill in the Dixie National Forest. The shutdown of that mill led to a buildup of timber that was just waiting to fuel a wildfire.The Brian Head Fire is just one of many problems caused by NEPA.
Fortunately, the Trump administration has proposed improving how federal agencies implement this law. Doing so would prevent future disasters and help get much-needed infrastructure improvements off the ground.
Since 1970, NEPA has required federal officials to evaluate the potential environmental impact of federally funded infrastructure projects. The majority of bridges, highways and pipelines built in the United States are subject to NEPA review and approval.
The NEPA review process has grown complicated since the law was last updated in the 1980s. To obtain a NEPA permit, business owners have to navigate a minefield of federal agencies, each with their own protocol. Activists and interest groups frequently exploit the law’s ambiguities to bog down projects they oppose, even once they’ve undergone environmental review.
These complexities make it challenging to obtain a NEPA permit. On average, it took just over two years to complete a NEPA assessment of a transportation project in the 1970s. By 2011, it took around seven years to complete the same assessment.
I’ve seen firsthand the damage NEPA can do. Activists exploited the law to shut down our local timber mill, which eliminated 400 well-paying jobs from our community. By fueling the Brian Head Fire, it also ruined the spring system that supplied drinking water to the city of Panguitch for more than a century.
NEPA also hinders crucial infrastructure repairs across the state. In addition to repairing the Panguitch spring system, Utah will need over $45 billion in drinking water infrastructure improvements over the next two decades, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Around 350,000 Utah residents get their water from systems known to have problems.
Utah residents must also deal with poor transportation infrastructure. A 2018 study found that two-thirds of Salt Lake City’s roads were in poor or worse condition. The study estimated that fixing these roads would cost $20 million a year. Salt Lake City drivers spent over three days stuck in traffic last year, according to the TomTom Traffic Index. That’s enough time to watch 57 football games.
The rest of the state faces similar transportation issues. Nearly a quarter of Utah’s public roads are in poor condition and cost drivers close to $700 per year in repairs. Those roads will soon have to handle even more drivers.
The state’s population grew from 2.7 million people in 2010 to 3.2 million people last year. Nearly 6 million people are expected to call Utah home by 2065.
The Trump administration’s proposed changes would streamline NEPA reviews without jeopardizing environmental standards. Public works projects would still undergo careful evaluations. But agencies would have the opportunity to leverage existing data and coordinate with each other to ensure timely permit approvals.
Current and future Utah residents need safe roads, clean drinking water, and well-paying jobs. Modernizing NEPA can help secure all that and more.
Leland Pollock is chairperson of the Garfield County Commission.