Summit County focuses on ‘shovel-ready’ watershed, fire projects over legislative push for public lands
For almost five years, Summit County has been engaged in an on-again, off-again effort to solicit help from the federal government to protect its public lands.
After national legislative efforts failed in 2015 and 2017, and a 2019 lands bill didn’t include Summit County’s interests, the County Council is considering how to proceed.
The means have varied but the county’s goal for its public lands has remained relatively the same since 2015: protecting watersheds and preventing catastrophic wildfires while allowing people to continue using the areas.
Federal lands on the east side of the county in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache and Ashley national forests spread over millions of acres and cross multiple watersheds. Much of the water that originates in the highlands sustains Summit County residents and many in the Wasatch Front.
Protecting the quality of the water is a high priority for the Summit County Council, higher even than managing potential wildfires, Council Chair Roger Armstrong said. But the two issues go hand in hand, he noted, as evidenced by the recent struggles in California after debris and chemicals from major wildfires polluted water sources.
“Water would be a primary goal overall, (then) fire to the extent it impacts watershed,” Armstrong said. “(We’re) looking to concentrate our resources on specific problems we have. Right now we want to pick up a glass of water and drink it.”
The County Council, at the urging of Councilor Kim Carson, has asked staff to look at the feasibility of pursuing standalone federal legislation to protect lands in Summit County. This is after years of false starts and other failed bills that could have addressed the county’s public lands, and in the wake of an Emery County land-use bill being signed into law this year.
The Emery County effort took a decade to come together, said Deputy County Manager Janna Young, at significant cost in money and staff time.
Rather than pursuing a sweeping Summit County lands bill at the federal level, it appears the county will instead adopt a different strategy.
At the July 10 County Council meeting, staff recommended postponing the legislative push and instead advocated pursuing federal funding for “shovel-ready” projects that have already passed environmental review. That would help accomplish the greater goals of the mission — preserving water quality and preventing catastrophic wildfires — while avoiding the costly and arduous proposition of passing legislation through Congress.
Young and planner Sean Lewis told the Council they had met with stakeholder groups including federal agencies that manage land in the county to see what would help them most, Instead of a federal legislative push, they requested a $10 million to $12 million annual budget to address forest issues.
Young said in an interview the High Uintas area has been referred to as the “asbestos” forest because of its potential for a catastrophic fire after years of fire suppression have left it loaded with burnable fuel.
If a fire were to happen, the erosion, mudslides and debris flows would threaten a critical water source for many Utahns, Young said, and the county broaching the idea of pursuing federal legislation is a part of a yearslong effort to find solutions.
She said that would almost certainly involve hiring a federal lobbyist, a potentially costly proposition. Young declined to estimate how much that would cost, saying she’d asked for but hadn’t received an estimate. That expert would determine specific strategies, but Young said one pathway could be targeting the federal infrastructure bill, known as the “highway bill,” which may include more funding for natural infrastructure.
This year, Young said, staff will continue talks with the 2015 coalition, which included public and private landowners, wilderness and watershed experts, land managers and ranchers. She said they would look to expand the group to include other stakeholders, attempt to clearly define the problem and determine specific goals and what they’d ask for from the federal and state governments.
She framed it as an opportunity to start a conversation that might bear fruit later, including a possible future push for legislation.
“We may not be successful getting funding this year, but starting lobbying efforts and beating that drum would probably be helpful next year,” she told the Council.
The county withdrew its support from a failed 2015 Public Lands Initiative bill after it changed dramatically in U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop’s office, and engaged with representatives from Bishop’s office again in 2017 before another bill also fizzled.
A 2019 effort did pass through Congress, but without the provisions Summit County had requested in previous cycles. The Natural Resources Management Act, which President Trump signed in March, included the Emery County Public Land Management Act of 2018, which took a decade of dedicated staff time, lobbying, trips to Washington, help from Bishop and last-minute favors called in by retiring U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, Young said.
Some of the goals from the 2015 effort would apparently require federal legislation, including creating a new federal land designation for watershed protection. The 2015 coalition also recommended significantly expanding the wilderness areas in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, which would afford them greater protections.
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