Logger sees his livelihood going up in flames; blames land policies

Published: Friday, July 13 2012 7:00 p.m. MDT

Mayor Lew Marchant, left, of Kamas, looks at dead and dying trees during a media tour in the Uinta National Forest, Friday, July 13, 2012.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

KAMAS — John Blazzard is a fifth-generation timberman who is watching his livelihood grow brown and die year by year, and he said he's helpless to do anything about it.

"It's beautiful country. It leaves a sick feeling in your stomach when you see it dying," he said. "At least it does to me."

Blazzard is looking out over the high vista of Duchesne Ridge in the Uinta Mountains outside of Kamas, where great patches of dead or dying conifers have been turned brown by a relentless beetle infestation. The dead trees are literally a forest unto themselves, the devastation stretching out for miles.

"It's like thousands of cans of gas out there, just waiting to go up."

Blazzard is frustrated by what he says are over-restrictive Forest Service policies that have not only decimated the timber industry in Utah, but left forests a dry wasteland of fallen timber and old, diseased trees ready to burst into an inferno.

"We can follow along and clean up the dead trees, but waiting four or five years for a timber sale (offered by the Forest Service) isn't going to cut it," he said.

He has the support of the Utah Farm Bureau, which organized a tour of the area with Blazzard to showcase its concerns. But environmental groups and the Forest Service say there are more culprits at work in this complex problem and it is overly simplistic to lay blame at the feet of federal policies or lawsuits.

As of July 6, 359,735 acres in Utah have been scorched by wildfires this year, with losses estimated by public safety officials topping $6 million.

Statistics going back as far as nine years show that 90 percent of Utah's forested landscapes even at that time were at a moderate to high risk of catastrophic wildfire due to forest health conditions. That staggering number, provided by the Utah Farm Bureau but taken from the Forest Service offices in Utah, accompanies what Blazzard said are federal practices that helped close the door on nearly a half-dozen lumber companies in the area. His is one of only three that remain.

His own production has dropped from four million board-feet from 15 years ago to about 1.5 million board-feet per season.

"This is something we have been doing for generations, but I am afraid that my kids, my grandkids, won't be able to continue."

He said the same constraints and inflexibility exist for grazing cattle or sheep. Last year, when heavy snow still blanketed the high Uintas, Blazzard said he had to wait two to three weeks to put his animals in the higher valleys. But this year, when the mild spring led to an early flourishing of cheat grass, there was no early window that opened up for his cattle to be moved to higher ground, where they would have kept the noxious plants — and fuel for fires — at bay.

"There was a time when the rangers would just get out and look at the nature and health of the land and be able to make a decision based on what they saw," he said. "Now there is a disconnect between getting out of the office and getting it done."

In another area, Blazzard gestures toward some campgrounds at Wolf Creek, where towering dead pines — some perhaps as old as 150 years — have been marked with blue paint. It is the Forest Service's signal for an upcoming timber sale being offered here and at the Trial Lake Campground.

He finds irony in the offering, however, because he's already logged here twice in the past 15 years, and could have easily snatched up the mature trees before they succumbed to a beetle infestation.

"If the Forest Service had been aggressive," said his wife, Jackie, "it wouldn't have got here. You wouldn't have had to come back a second or third time. Why can't something be done ahead of time? It breaks my heart to see the trees like this."

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