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CEDAR CITY — With Utah and other western states experiencing yet another devastating wildfire season, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said he believes the state can do a better job of managing its own forests and that he plans to petition the federal government to allow that to happen.
During his remarks at the recent Utah Rural Summit at Southern Utah University, Herbert said the state has seen 871 wildfires so far this year, which have collectively burned more than 126,000 acres.
“We get, on average, about 15 calls a day of a fire being started somewhere,” Herbert told the audience at the conference, adding that 60 percent are human-caused. “That means they’re preventable,” he said, noting that the human-caused fires are responsible for approximately 108,000 of the acres burned, while lightning-caused fires have charred just over 17,000 acres.
The economic costs are high as well; the costs of fighting this season’s fires so far has exceeded $40 million, Herbert said.
Herbert said poorly managed forests can lead to large swaths of standing dead trees, creating hazardous conditions.
“It’s a tinderbox,” he said. “This is a fire waiting to happen.”
Better management techniques such as targeted prescribed burns and the harvesting of dead trees could help mitigate the problem, the governor said, but added that Utah’s hands are often tied due to federal regulations, leaving a sizable percentage of its forest lands essentially unmanageable.
One particular set of Forest Service regulations is commonly known as the "Roadless Rule,” which regulates the number of roads in a forest. Although the rule is intended to protect forests, Herbert said it has led to overgrown and unhealthy forests filled with dead trees.
Noting that neighboring states such as Idaho and Colorado have already enacted state-specific modifications to federal roadless rules, Herbert said it’s time for Utah to petition the U.S. Forest Service for a new Utah-specific roadless rule.
“It is time for us to be aggressive and proactive and say we can, with cooperation, do a better job managing these forests we have,” he said, adding, “Our forest managers, would have … the tools and the flexibility they need to improve the health of our forests and thereby reduce our forest fire risk.”