A high-risk fuels area in the North Slope region of Summit County could pose not only a great wildfire danger to Utah and Wyoming, but a potentially huge impact to the area's water supplies.
The North Slope lies in the northern Uinta Mountains and extends north into Wyoming. Summit County Council member Dave Ure has been working with state agencies to appropriate funds through the State Legislature to harvest high-risk fuels in the area.
The area encompasses over 100,000 acres, Ure said, and has been ravaged over the years by bark beetles, which have killed the majority of trees there.
"This area has not been logged for many years. The forest is overgrown probably tenfold. The trees are not overly big, but they're really close together," Ure said. "When you have trees that way, it makes it very appetizing for [bark] beetles."
Ure has been working with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands to begin the removal of high-risk fuels from the area, and said the county has applied for $500,000 through that agency for the project. The U.S. Forest Service has also added money through the state to the tune of $125,000, Ure said.
Appropriation of funds is still pending from the State Legislature. The project is one of several which will receive $4.5 million total among them.
Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest Supervisor Dave Whittekiend said the forest has money through its budget as well as through Uinta County, Wyo., for the project. Any additional funding would mean more timber harvesting would be possible, he said.
In what is being called the Roughneck Vegetation Restoration Project, the forest will open a bidding process to any company that shows it can harvest the timber in the area.
If crews do not go into the North Slope area to harvest these fuels, a wildfire, should one start there, would be "impossible" to stop, Ure said.
"Fires are, for the most part, good as long as they burn fast. Here, the timber is so thick, [a fire] will burn slow and sterilize the ground," Ure said. "It wouldn't be for 10-15 years that [vegetation] would start to grow back."
Two-thirds of the problem is in Utah, Ure said, with the rest being in Uinta County, Wyo. If a wildfire started in the North Slope, it could burn clear to Evanston, Wyo. Not only that, if the ground in the area is sterilized by a fire, it would have a devastating impact on Summit County's water supply.
"If [the North Slope] burns and sterilizes the ground, it will not hold any water," Ure said. "The water will all come out at once and cause great erosion."
The nearby Bear, Duchesne, Provo and Weber Rivers all start within several miles of one another and would be impacted by such runoff, which would carry sediment into reservoirs and creeks, causing great damage to drinking water all the way to the Wasatch Front.
"The water will come out all at once instead of slowly like [it does] right now. It will come out in the flood stage and will overrun reservoirs and run into the Great Salt Lake and we won't have reserve [water supplies] for later," Ure said.
The fuels-harvesting project would not be a clear-cut, but rather would constitute thinning and trimming of trees. Ure said that unless crews begin harvesting either this year or next, there will not be any salvage value left on the fuels present. Once started, the project would open up roads in the area that have been closed. Those roads would be closed again once the project is complete.
"We're looking at different contingencies with different levels of funding," Whittekiend said. "This [project] highlights the power of a coalition of groups working together."
"It's in the best interest of Mother Nature and the human aspects of life to try to trim those trees out while we still have a chance. If we do it now, there's some salvage value to it," Ure said.