Largescale Wildfire Fuels Reduction Effort to Begin in Utah’s Uinta Mountains

Large amounts of dead trees cover a ridgeline in the Uinta Mountains.
 
An eastward view from Elizabeth Ridge on the north slope of the Uinta Mountains shows the large number of dead trees due to beetle kill. This area is central to the Anadarko Vegetation Management project that will soon begin. USDA Forest Service photo by Travis Cann.

Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest continues to make headway in fight against wildfire 

By Kari Tilton
Intermountain Region
August 25, 2023

A dead tree stands in the foreground as the sun sets.
A dead lodgepole pine seems to stand guard as the sun sets deep in the woods on the north slope of the Uinta Mountains. Courtesy photo provided by Jeromy Jaramillo.

Longtime Utah resident, Jeromy Jaramillo, has been hunting and scouting elk on the north slope of the Uinta Mountains for nearly 20 years.  

Jaramillo has hiked hundreds of miles in the area, easing his way up gentle slopes through a mix of evergreens and aspen trees before climbing into higher elevations where vast meadows and small lakes are surrounded by tall pines. 

Each year, Jaramillo hopes to harvest a trophy-sized bull elk, but so far, the largest he’s gotten was a young, spike bull, he says with a laugh.  

In a far more serious tone, Jaramillo goes on to say that he’s growing increasingly concerned that severe wildfires could easily devastate the area and its big game habitat.  

It’s clear why he’s worried. Large swaths of scraggly, dead trees cover the hillsides. A bark beetle outbreak began in Utah in the early 2000s, killing about 65 percent of lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce on the north slope of the Uinta Mountains over a seven year period, according to Peter Howard, a silviculturist on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.  

Most of the trees are still standing, scarring the scenic landscape.  

“I’m surprised the entire area hasn’t burned up yet given how much beetle kill exists,” Jaramillo said. “A giant burn would devastate this area and it would take years to recover.” 

Tracking collar data from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources shows the north slope is a migration corridor used by big game, according to Evan DeHamer, habitat partnership coordinator for the Mule Deer Foundation in Utah and the Intermountain Region.  

When the large number of dead trees fall over, they increase hazardous fuels and make it extremely difficult for wildlife, and firefighters, to move across the terrain. 

Elk hunter, Jeromy Jaramillo, stands among evergreen trees.
Weber County resident, Jeromy Jaramillo, attempts to call in a bull elk on the north slope of the Uinta Mountains in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cashe National Forest. Jaramillo is concerned that severe wildfires could devastate the area. Courtesy photo provided by Jeromy Jaramillo.

Stopping wildfire before it starts 

Soon, a large-scale wildfire fuels reduction effort known as the Anadarko Vegetation Management project will begin to clean up the massive amounts of beetle-kill along a large portion of the Uinta’s north slope, according to Justin Robinson, District Ranger for the Evanston-Mountain View Ranger District. 

The project is one of many underway on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest’s Wasatch Front landscape as part of U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service National Wildfire Crisis Strategy

The area is a favorite for tourists and offers camping, hiking, hunting, fishing, wilderness access, ATV trails, winter motor sports and boating. Homes and vacation cabin communities run along nearly the entire western and northern border of the project area. 

The Evanston-Mountain View Ranger District will carry out the work alongside a wide range of partners, including the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Trout Unlimited and the Mule Deer Foundation.  

During the next 10 years, the project will involve prescribed fire, thinning, and timber sales, to  treat nearly 70,000 acres. Timber harvested on the Evanston-Mountain View Ranger District is typically processed for rough-cut lumber at one of several local mills, providing many well-paying jobs, and is a major benefit to the local economy, according to Howard.  

Reducing hazardous fuels also protects water quality. The waterways on the Anadarko project area flow into the Bear and Green Rivers, which feed into local area water supplies. The Green River is part of the larger Colorado River system, which provides water for more than 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland across seven states, Howard said.  

When high-intensity fires burn through a landscape, soil erosion often contaminates water sources for both humans and wildlife, including Bonneville and Colorado River cutthroat trout.  

Elk hunter, Jeromy Jaramillo rests against a tree facing a large meadow. 
During a hunting trip, Jeromy Jaramillo takes a break while overlooking a meadow surrounded by healthy trees and beetle-kill. Courtesy photo provided by Jeromy Jaramillo.

Jaramillo is relieved to know the Anadarko project will soon be underway.  

“Wildfire would destroy the livelihoods of so many who own property and cabins," he said. “These fuel reduction treatments will protect that. Naturally, wildfires will happen, but we can mitigate the risks to the forest and populated areas by managing it properly.” 

The Anadarko project is the result of years of planning, collection and analysis of thousands of field data samples, and input from the Forest Service, state agencies, and conservation and recreation groups. Hundreds of people are involved in the massive effort, Howard said.  

In addition to ‘boots on the ground’ manpower that will conduct the hands-on hazardous fuels treatments, a group of engineers will soon be hired to ensure crews and heavy equipment operators can safely navigate sharp turns, degraded roads, bridges, and stream crossings in the area.  

Fighting wildfire in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache and across the U.S. 

Northern Utah has some of the nation's fastest growing communities, many at risk from wildfires. Currently, nine wildfire prevention projects are underway on 100,000 acres on the Wasatch Front Landscape. Projects have been completed on 10,000 acres.  

Across the country, the USDA Forest Service’s Wildfire Crisis Landscape projects currently address 137 high-risk areas in the western United States. More than $930 million will be invested across 26.7 million acres to mitigate wildfire risk to nearly 200 communities nationwide. Wildfire crisis strategy investments are funded through the Biden Administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act

(Lindsey Winkel, a public affairs specialist in the Intermountain Region, contributed to this story.)