SALT LAKE CITY — Environmental groups launched legal assaults decades ago to protect forests from timber harvests but instead transformed them into tinderboxes, a group of critics charged Wednesday.
In a video produced under the direction of Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, that will be presented to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue, the Utah lawmaker and others blasted failed management practices of federal agencies held hostage to lawsuits and protests by environmental groups.
As the state continues to grapple with the aftermath of the massive Brian Head wildfire this summer — the state's most costly in its history — Noel and rural leaders are girding for a fight to wrest more active management of the national forests in Utah.
The video to support that fight debuted before the Legislature's Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee, featuring retired foresters, including Hugh Thompson, former supervisor of the Dixie National Forest where the 71,000-acre Brian Head Fire burned this summer.
Thompson and others contend that by the time a logging request before the Forest Service to help deal with a 5-acre stand of beetle-infested trees was solved by the courts, it was too late to stem the outbreak. By the time those years had passed, the outbreak had spread to 28,000 acres that the court acknowledged had reached epidemic proportions.
The legal dispute also cleared the path toward the logging industry's demise, Noel said, because without a steady supply of product, the mills went out of business.
This summer's Brian Head Fire, started by a resident using a blowtorch to clear weeds around his cabin, cost $34 million to fight and will end up costing millions more in rehabilitation and to address long-standing effects.
Panguitch is experiencing an E. coli outbreak in its spring-fed culinary water and is seeking emergency funding for a new well. Parowan has secured more than $1 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Emergency Watershed Protection Program to make repairs for its secondary water system.
Fish, including trout, are wiped out at Parowan and Yankee Meadow reservoirs, and the Utah Department of Natural Resources put in an aerator to help the prized fishery at Panguitch Lake, which Noel said is one of the top 10 in the nation.
Garfield County Commissioner Lee Pollock traveled to Washington, D.C., recently to push approval for Utah to participate in a joint program with the Forest Service called the "Good Neighbor," and he also wants to tap into the success of the Watershed Restoration Initiative.
That state-run program under the purview of the Utah Department of Natural Resources and its partners is credited with completing nearly 1,500 projects on 1.5 million acres, including Bureau of Land Management land.
"What we want to expand this into is more of a long-term solution, a 10- to 20-year agreement to clean up the Dixie National Forest," Pollock said.
Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance — which was among the groups challenging the mid-1990s logging — said Noel is spouting falsehoods.
Groene said U.S. Forest Service researchers have concluded that logging beetle-killed trees would not have made a difference in the Brian Head Fire.
The Forest Service has said that beetle-killed trees pose a hazardous fuels risk and jeopardize watershed health and public safety. Millions of acres across the West are impacted.
A 2013 decision by the Forest Service to allow 8,300 acres of logging on the Dixie National Forest was challenged by multiple environmental groups. The project targeted more than half the acreage that was impacted by beetles and in need of thinning due to 1960s-era harvests. The environmental groups lost.
A recent U.S. Geological Survey study analyzed 471 large watersheds in the West and concluded that the sediment in more than one-third of them could double by 2050.
The study looked at wildfire risk and erosion models, noting that 65 percent of the water supply in the West originates from watersheds with fire-prone vegetation.