Wildfire Crisis Funds Accelerate Efforts Toward a Resilient Utah Landscape

By Elizabeth Wharton
Intermountain Region
June 30, 2023

From sprawling cities to scenic mountain views, expansive trail systems, and pristine rivers and lakes, it is no surprise that northern Utah has become one of the fastest growing populations in the nation.

Aerial view of mountains with trees
About 1.1 million acres of the Wasatch landscape spans national forest, State, and private lands across multiple counties  USDA Forest Service photo.

However, with this rapid growth in population, more and more people are either spending time in or living closer to wildlands than ever before and as a result, are at risk of catastrophic wildfire. The need for prevention work to be done at the ground-level at a greater pace and scale has never been higher.

As a result, the USDA Forest Service is investing $18,250,000 as part of a multi-year national effort to reduce fuels on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest to protect watersheds, plant and wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and private property and infrastructure in the wildland-urban interface.

The Wasatch Landscape

In early 2023, USDA Forest Service selected the Wasatch landscape as one of 11 landscapes in the western U.S. as part of the National Wildfire Crisis Strategy. This strategy aims to fight the growing wildfire crisis due to declining forest and rangeland health, noxious weed infestations, increasing temperatures, encroachment into wildland-urban areas, and human-caused ignitions.

The Wasatch Landscape, or the Wasatch Wildfire Crisis Landscape Project, is approximately 1.1 million acres, encompassing about 868,000 acres of National Forest System lands. This landscape is also made up of other non-NFS ownership, including private (26 percent), State (4 percent), Bureau of Land Management (3 percent), and other (less than 1 percent).

The project area covers four high-risk firesheds in northern Utah and southwestern Wyoming. High-risk firesheds are large, forested landscapes with a high likelihood that an ignition could expose homes, communities, or infrastructure to wildfire. Firesheds, typically about 250,000 acres in size, are mapped to show where community exposure to wildfire is highest.

“The project encompasses areas that are susceptible to high-intensity wildfires.” Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest Supervisor, David Whittekiend, said. “Our goals are to reduce wildfire risk to communities, maintain critical watersheds, and restore healthy, resilient fire-adapted forests.”

The landscape has more than 300 miles of regionally important energy infrastructure supporting the growing population of northern Utah. There are also 92 at-risk communities and counting that are within or adjacent to the landscape.

Landscape picture with mountains and a stretch of trees
The Anadarko Vegetation Management Project is one of two Wildfire Crisis Strategy landscape projects on the Evanston-Mountain View Ranger District at the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest in Utah.USDA Forest Service photo.

The area is also known for its world class recreation opportunities and infrastructure that support over 13 million visitors a year, including but not limited to a $1.4 billion ski industry with seven resorts, five of which operate on NFS lands. According to a Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute report about Utah’s travel and tourism industry, visitors pumped $10.56 billion into the economy in 2021.  In that same study, the high demand called for 89,600 jobs in the industry.

In addition, watersheds in the landscape furnish drinking water to more than 2 million people; they are highly sensitive to projected increases in drought, heat, and flooding, as well as the effects of wildfires, insect and disease outbreaks, and land use change.

Planned Projects

Through this funding and the continuous efforts of partners, the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest has identified nine planned projects that will reduce wildfire risks by restoring and maintaining healthy, resilient fire-adapted forests on four districts.

Aerial view of mountains with trees
The Upper Provo Watershed Restoration Project aims to improve soil, water, and vegetation conditions for watershed health and reduce hazardous fuels along roadways and within the project area. USDA Forest Service photo.

“Additional funding allows us to implement projects at a faster pace.” Whittekiend said. “This funding means that the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest will be able to reduce the risk of wildfire to communities and watersheds within northern Utah.”

This work focuses on fuel breaks and landscape treatments including mechanical thinning and mastication, where vegetation is ground up or shredded to increase the speed of decomposition. Manual and chemical treatments for non-native annuals and noxious weeds as well as prescribed fire are also being used.

Seven of the nine Wildfire Crisis Strategy landscape projects aim to restore watersheds across the landscape: Big Cottonwood Canyon, Mill Creek, Parleys Canyon, and Stansbury Mountain on the Salt Lake Ranger District; Strawberry Ridge and Upper Provo on the Heber-Kamas Ranger District; and Sheeprocks on the Spanish Fork Ranger District. The last two, both on the Evanston-Mountain View Ranger District, aim to reduce vegetation to help reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire in their respective areas.

For more information please visit Wasatch Wildfire Crisis Landscape Project page.

A National Crisis

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service invested $131 million to combat this issue in support of the agency’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy. This initial investment covered 10 landscapes, approximately 208,000 acres, across Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.

With the understanding that confronting the wildfire crisis across the nation could not be accomplished alone, the USDA Forest Service worked with other federal agencies, including the Department of the Interior, and with Tribes, states, local communities, private landowners, and partners to identify and treat these areas across all jurisdictions.

Learn more at the Wildfire Crisis Strategy in the Intermountain Region webpage.