Record editorial: Summit County must act to protect vital watersheds in the Uintas
What’s the best way to get the ball across the goal line?
That’s the question Summit County is asking about its long-stated desire to protect critical wildlife and watershed areas in the Uinta Mountains after previous attempts to work with Rep. Rob Bishop’s office to secure federal land protections fell flat.
At a recent County Council meeting, staffers presented three possible courses of action: revive the effort to get a public lands bill through Congress, seek federal funding for forest management projects that could help accomplish the county’s overall goals without the need for legislation, or table the issue for the time being.
A half-decade has already passed since Summit County initially proposed the land protections as part of Bishop’s 2015 Public Lands Initiative process, meaning there’s no time to waste. As the risk of catastrophic wildfires in the West increases with climate change, so too does the threat to watersheds, which can be made toxic by fire debris. If that were to happen in the Uintas, the result would be devastating because the Uintas supply water for tens of thousands of Utahns in Summit County and elsewhere.
As staffers have noted, though, spearheading a push for congressional legislation would be a monumental task, requiring the county to pony up significant money and reshuffle staff priorities. And as two failed rounds of the Public Lands Initiative process illustrate, there’s no guarantee a bill incorporating the land protections Summit County wants would ever make it to the president’s desk.
It would likely take years even in a best-case scenario. Emery County, for instance, spent a decade shepherding public lands legislation through Congress before getting it passed earlier this year.
The better alternative is working with entities like the U.S. Forest Service and other stakeholders interested in protecting the water supply to secure federal funding for watershed protection and wildfire mitigation projects. This path would also require significant resources from the county, and stretch well beyond 2019.
But it’s a sensible middle ground because progress could be made in the short term while building momentum for possible legislation in the future.
The other choice, doing nothing, would certainly be the easiest — and cheapest — option. And it wouldn’t prevent the county from taking action in the future. Given what’s at stake, however, it’s the most difficult alternative to stomach. Residents should urge the county to act. Protecting watersheds in the Uintas is a steep mountain to climb, but it’s an opportunity for county officials to once again show leadership on an issue of utmost importance.
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