Roger Arave, Deseret News
FILE - The Left Hand and Right Hand forks of the Bear River converge at this spot in the High Uintas. We are at risk of losing the clean water that comes from them. Many do not realize the relationship between forests and water. Today, 65 percent of the public water supply in the Western United States originates in forests.

Buried in the state’s recently passed budget is a small gem of a program. This program is the state’s Catastrophic Wildfire Reduction Strategy (CatFire). It is quietly making a difference is the lives of thousands of everyday Utahns.

CatFire is an example of Utah’s state government taking a leadership position on protecting public and private forestlands from catastrophic wildfires.

In Utah, we have acres of forests weakened by a decade of beetle infestation and two years of drought. Factor in recent catastrophic wildfires on top of this and Utahns are vulnerable to losing our vital forest watersheds. Most important, we are at risk of losing the clean water that comes from them.

Many do not realize the relationship between forests and water. Today, 65 percent of the public water supply in the Western United States originates in forests.

Forests in watersheds act as natural water filters and storage systems. They help replenish the rivers and streams that run through them and keep them clear. This is particularly important in states like Utah that have limited forests and have suffered from drought-like conditions.

While wildfires are a natural and necessary part of forest ecology, catastrophic-level fires harm the water supply. By wiping out forested watersheds, they leave nothing behind to prevent runoff and debris from filling streams and rivers.

Thus, the water supplies for communities throughout the Wasatch Valley can become polluted.

A new report from the American Forest Foundation focuses on this link in the Western United States. It reveals the surprising ownership patterns of land in important water supply watersheds that are also at a high risk of fire.

The report identified 34 million acres across the West that fit this criterion. Of this, more than 13.5 million of these acres are on private and family land.

In Utah, private and family landowners own almost as much at-risk land (47 percent) in key watersheds as the government. This includes much of the land in the Wasatch Valley.

This is why the 3-year-old CatFire program is so important.

This year, the Legislature provided $1 million for the CatFire program. This state money works in conjunction with additional federal pass-through dollars. The larger pool of money is then used to fund projects that reduce the risk of fire on public and private forest lands. This includes Utah's all-important watersheds. Most of this land has not been properly managed for years.

For example, the 2001 Mollie Fire burned approximately 8,000 acres in the Santaquin area in Utah County. CatFire spent $200,000 to pay for much-needed fire mitigation work last year. The county, with the help of private contractors and volunteers, created a much-needed firebreak over a 9.5-acre region of public and private land. The county also completed a fuels-reduction project to lower the risk of future fires.

These mitigation programs may seem to be of limited value to the naked eye. But CatFire makes it easier for firefighters to control fires on the ground.

Rather than focusing on just public lands, CatFire embraces a more holistic approach.

Many parts of Utah’s watersheds are like a patchwork quilt of public and private lands. Since neither fire nor flowing water respect legal boundaries, CatFire works across them to treat at-risk public and private lands. This protects the land and helps ensure the water that comes out of your faucets is not contaminated.

3 comments on this story

CatFire has gotten off to a good start. Yet, there is still much to do. We have only begun to reverse decades of neglect of Utah’s watersheds and other forestlands. But the state government has taken the lead on an issue that is import to Utahns’ safety and health. For that, it deserves congratulations.

Nat Frazer is past member of the Utah Forestry, Fire, and State Lands Advisory Board and a professor at the College of Natural Resources at Utah State University. Tom Martin is president and CEO at the American Forest Foundation based in Washington, D.C.