Utah resolution calls on feds to allow more prescribed burns, timber removal to reduce wildfires

A smoke column rises from the Trail Mountain fire, Emery County, Utah, June 15, 2018 | File photo courtesy of IncieWeb, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — In light of last year’s devastating wildfire season, a committee of Utah lawmakers voted in favor of a resolution urging the federal government to implement forest management policies allowing for more prescribed burns and timber-salvaging.

Slash piles are burned in a prescribed fire near Duck Creek Village, Dixie National Forest, Utah, date not specified | File photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service, St. George News

“Concurrent Resolution Urging Policies That Reduce Damage from Wildfires,” designated in the 2019 Utah Legislature as H.C.R. 5, received a favorable recommendation from the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee Friday evening.

The original resolution urged the federal government “to pursue policies that allow for easier reduction of excess forest fuel loads and minimize further climate warming,” but any mention of climate change was removed before it received its favorable recommendation.

“In the summer of 2018, we had a bad wildfire season here in Utah,” resolution sponsor Rep. Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful, said during Friday’s committee meeting in Salt Lake City discussing the resolution.

“In the end, there were over 480,000 acres that were burned. There were 400 structures that were burned; there were prolonged evacuations from areas of high population,” he said. “In addition to that damage, we had prolonged episodes of bad air that were a direct result of the fires.”

Ward said the worsening fire conditions are part of a larger pattern, not only in Utah, but across the U.S.

“What might be causing that?” Ward asked. “We don’t have to think about that very long before there’s a couple answers that do come to mind.”

He argued one major reason for the increase is conservation policy at the federal level that has led to buildup of excess fuels in the state’s national forests as dry, dead timber remains unharvested.

Utah Rep. Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah House of Representatives, St. George News

As a remedy, the resolution calls for “common sense fuel load reductions in Utah’s forests, including easier permitting of prescribed burns during times of the year with low fire risk and allowing for appropriate salvage logging to occur before timber loses its economic value.”

“In our current situation right now, when a company wants to harvest that salvaged timber, almost always there’s a lawsuit that gets brought against that,” Ward said. “It’s easy enough to drag that lawsuit out so in just a couple years, that timber loses any value that it may have had. So simply by delaying, the party that brought the suit wins that suit.”

Ward suggested arbitration could be used in place of lawsuits to speed up the resolution of any disputes over forest management, an idea that has gained momentum with some lawmakers at the federal level.

He also pointed to prescribed burns as one of the state’s main tools in reducing fuel loads and suggested that federal forest managers allow for more frequent burns during low-risk fire seasons.

“Sometimes the regulations we have in place delay the prescribed burns from ever happening and then that delay results in something worse happening,” Ward said.

Most of the committee members were in favor of these provisions in the resolution, but when Ward presented the next portion of the resolution concerning climate change, disagreement came swiftly.

The original resolution urged “the federal government to minimize additional climate change by pursuing policies that will lead to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.”

“Over the last 40 to 50 years, our climate has become warmer and drier,” Ward said before presenting this portion of the resolution. “We have only to look at thermometer to see that the average temperature of our planet has warmed  — that’s 1.5 degrees, and in Utah we’ve warmed a little bit more than that just on our own thermometer — 3 degrees.”

Ward said scientific consensus indicates that this warming is the result of human activity.

Fire on the west flank of the West Valley Fire near Pine Valley in Washington County, Utah, July 4, 2018 | File photo courtesy of Dixie National Forest, St. George News

When the committee asked for public comment on the matter, two science professors provided input on the resolution.

John Armstrong, a Weber State University professor, said it’s important to listen to the scientific community when it comes to shaping policies around climate change.

“This problem is not going away, and I think if we walk into the future with our eyes wide open, and take the best advice we can get from the best people who know what they’re talking about, that that would make things better,” Armstrong said.

Ben Abbott, a professor of environmental science and ecology at Brigham Young University who conducted research in an area of the state that burned last year, also spoke in favor of the resolution.

“Fire is an important part of natural ecosystems in the West. It’s important for forest regeneration,” he said. “What can be very damaging both for ecosystems and society are what we call these mega-fires.”

Explaining that the extent of wildfires has doubled since 1970, he said both provisions in the resolution — climate change policy and fuels reduction — could lead to productive results in the way of fire mitigation.

After hearing from the scientists and another Utah resident in favor of the resolution as-is, the legislators moved quickly to amend it to remove the provision about climate change.

“On some level, we’re always grappling with the changing climate, in one form or the other,” Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, said. “Where I think we start to have heartburn, we start to have problems is wading into what I think are very complicated and difficult conversations in terms of causation.”

Republican Rep. Phil Lyman, who represents a portion of Southern Utah, said the climate change provision was fraught with political baggage.

Phil Lyman speaks in Blanding, Utah, May 10, 2014 | File photo by Dallas Hyland, St. George News

“I think the language adds a layer of complexity and politics that really don’t go along with reducing damage from wildfires,” Lyman said, adding that we was still in favor of the portion of the resolution that could potentially support the idea of allowing the logging industry to go in and start “thinning the forests” in the name of fire mitigation.

Ward said that while he believed the climate change portion was important, he was amenable to removing the language if it meant the resolution could receive a favorable vote.

“I do hope that we’re not shying away from a discussion about climate change in general,” he said. “I agree that there are some parts of it that are complicated that are very difficult to disentangle.”

The resolution ultimately received an 11-2 vote in favor after it was amended to remove the climate change portion. The resolution will now need to pass in the House and Senate before it can be signed by Gov. Gary Herbert, who has been an active proponent of giving Utah a greater degree of control in the management of the state’s national forests.

Read more: See all St. George News reports and opinions on Utah Legislature 2019 issues

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