SALT LAKE CITY — This year has been one of the most devastating fire seasons in the West, with dozens of fatalities, hundreds missing and one of Utah's own firefighters killed in a California blaze.
Unhealthy forests in desperate need of vegetation treatment are one of the culprits, with the U.S. Forest Service buckling under the weight of unfunded projects to clear dead strands of trees, kill invasive species and thin overgrowth.
Dave Whittekiend, the forest supervisor of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, briefed a group of lawmakers last week on the U.S. Forest Service's participation in the "Million Acre Challenge" to treat a million acres by 2022 in Utah.
The agency is working with the Utah Department of Natural Resources and other partners involved in the Western Watershed Initiative, which since 2006 has treated more than 1.6 million acres in the state.
He admitted the accelerated time frame to treat a million acres in just four years will be a tough haul.
"For us it is stretching beyond what we have ever done before," Whittekiend told members of the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands.
"We want to minimize the effect of wildfires on the people in the state of Utah. We will be pushing hard on this Million Acre Challenge."
Whittekiend says the Forest Service wants to be an active partner in Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's push to create 25,000 jobs in rural Utah.
Part of that involves encouraging the timber industry and stoking interest in wood products, he added.
There were 18 timber sales across the state over the past year, and while there are 22 timber-related industries in Utah, the Forest Service received no bids.
Some of that inaction is due to little industry interest in certain types of wood and an oversupply of product, Whittekiend said. A Wyoming mill buys lumber off the north slope of the Uintas, but Whittekiend said there's been little activity elsewhere.
"It would be great to develop broader, more diverse wood markets for the material we have out there," he said.
Across the nation, the Forest Service spends more than half of its budget on fighting fires, leaving little money for vegetation treatments that could help it get ahead of the problem of overgrown, unhealthy forests.
Whittekiend said in Utah there are 1.3 million acres ready for some sort of vegetation treatment after having undergone an environmental review process.
On average, it costs $250 to treat each acre, he said, which means those shovel-ready acres would need $340 million.
"We have a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done and somehow we need to do more. It is not for lack of planning and it is not for lack of desire, it is the resources," he said.
Whittekiend's district, as an example, operates on an annual budget of about $20 million. The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, abutting Salt Lake City, received 10.7 million visitors in 2017, and is one of the top five forests visited in the country.
Agencies target the wildland urban interface as high priority areas for treatment, but it is difficult.
"Those are the expensive acres," he said. "It is difficult to do a prescribed fire in someone's backyard."
In Utah this year, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands says 1,331 fires have scorched 486,991 acres at an approximate cost of $150 million.
"We don't have the money we need to do fuels treatment on the scale that we need to get done," Whittekiend said. "Utah's situation is not unique. We spend a tremendous amount of money on fire suppression, and we have struggled historically to spend money on fuels management."
Lawmakers were dismayed at Whittekiend's presentation.
"It is a pretty herculean task that you are facing and we face the impacts," said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan. "Thirty to 40 percent of our watershed is severely impacted because of forest conditions."68 comments on this story
Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, wondered if there was some way for the Forest Service to tap into money generated by mineral leases or energy development on its lands, rather than have that money go directly into the nation's general funds.
Whittekiend said any sort of funding stream would help.
In fiscal year 2018, across the Intermountain region that includes Utah, Nevada, Idaho, California, Colorado and Wyoming, Whittekiend said 295,403 acres were treated under a vegetation or fuels plan, including managed wildfires.
The region includes 12 national forests, one national grassland and covers 34 million acres.
"The scale of work we have before us is tremendous," he said.