'We have to do something': New coalition seeks to protect Utah's land, water

Tourists visit the Great Salt Lake on Nov. 19, 2021. Utah environmental groups said Thursday the effort to save the drying lake may serve as a blueprint for future conservation goals.

Tourists visit the Great Salt Lake on Nov. 19, 2021. Utah environmental groups said Thursday the effort to save the drying lake may serve as a blueprint for future conservation goals. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Last year showed, yet again, the dangers that a changing climate have on Utah and the West.

Federal scientists say the Western drought and wildfires each produced economic losses in the billions in 2021. They also believe there will be even more stronger storms, more wildfires and longer heat waves in the near future.

That likelihood is why over a dozen Utah environmental and conservation groups are coming together in an effort help preserve the state's land and water. They launched "Utah 30x30," a coalition that seeks to find solutions to help conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

The group's name is a play on the goals outlined in President Joe Biden's "America The Beautiful" initiative released last year.

The Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Great Salt Lake Audubon, Utah Rivers Council and Utah Dine Bikeyah are among the more than a dozen groups represented in the new coalition. Members say it's just the start of something bigger — protecting 50% of the nation's lands and waters by 2050.

The local group, however, will seek to find ways Utah's land and water resources can be protected, said Deeda Seed, public lands senior campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, and one of the new group's founding members.

"The next step is really getting down into the details. Working to protect 30% of Utah's land and water by 2030 is absolutely the right way to approach the climate emergency," Seed said. "We'll be protecting these landscapes for climate resilience and biodiversity, and those are the two critical things that we're facing. ... In the case of Utah, (it's) literally being choked out of existence because of heat and other factors."

Going about change

As a part of its initial step toward figuring out policy proposals, the group looked to identify what's already protected and what Utahns want to see protected. Seed said the coalition hopes to forge partnerships with local universities to ensure the best science is behind any proposal.

The coalition found about 12% of Utah's total land has some level of protection, including undeveloped wilderness areas or designated lands, like national parks, monuments, conservation easements and state, local, tribal or privately owned nature preserves.

Over 1,100 people mostly from Salt Lake, but also counties all over the state, also participated in a survey to identify what natural features Utahns want better protected.

  • About 97% said ensuring clean water and air is what makes protecting nature important to them.
  • Nature is also important for recreation, spiritual and "solace and renewal" reasons, in addition to protecting fish and wildlife.
  • Respondents preferred all types of protections but especially protected areas for wildlife and wilderness areas over state or national park designations.
  • Those taking the survey seemed to favor bodies of water the most — 90% said they wanted Utah's river and watersheds protected, while close to 90% added they wanted the drying Great Salt Lake ecosystem protected.
  • Utah's national forests (82%), Utah's red rock wildlands (81%), the Wasatch Mountains (78%), Wasatch foothills (75%), Utah's national monuments (73%) and the West Desert (67%) were also favored heavily.

The coalition plans to reach out to state lawmakers for ideas, as well, especially during the 2022 Legislature, which begins Tuesday.

Utahns are already experiencing poor air quality from fires and the statewide drought. There is also wildfire risk, similar to that of California and Colorado, which can be devastating to communities, as witnessed this past year.

"We all know that the crisis is getting worse. We're seeing it every day," Seed said. "30x30 is a proactive way that we can prevent that kind of catastrophe from happening in the future. Protecting public lands is the single-best thing we can do to mitigate the climate emergency."

The Great Salt Lake ecosystem might serve as a poster child of the myriad ways we need to think about changing how we treat the lands of the state.

–Mary O'Brien, Project Eleven Hundred

It appears there will be some mutual interest, as protection of the Great Salt Lake, Utah Lake and Utah's water supply is among the top issues set to be hashed out over the upcoming 45-day session. Gov. Spencer Cox and some of the state's agencies also released the first chapter of "Utah's Coordinated Action Plan for Water" on Thursday, which seeks to invest in new water infrastructure.

The final chapter, which will revolve around protecting watersheds and forests, is expected to be released later this year.

"The extreme drought conditions this past year have shown all Utahns the importance of water planning and conservation," the governor said in a statement. "We have benefited from water storage decisions made by policymakers 100 years ago. Now it's our turn to ensure water security for future generations and this plan will do this."

Mary O'Brien, the executive director of the Grand County-based environmental group Project Eleven Hundred, said the state's reaction to the issues regarding the Great Salt Lake and other water issues is exactly the type of reaction that members of the coalition hope to see with other projects, including protecting wildlife habitats, native species and grazing on public lands.

Those are all issues that could help toward the 30% goal in the next eight years.

"The Great Salt Lake ecosystem might serve as a poster child of the myriad ways we need to think about changing how we treat the lands of the state," O'Brien said.

Can the West lead change?

The new coalition was announced the same day the scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA announced that 2021 was the earth's sixth-warmest on record. It was also the contiguous U.S.'s fourth-warmest and Utah's third-warmest on record.

The global calculation is based on sea temperatures. Russell Vose, chief of climate monitoring for the administration's National Centers for Environmental Information, said that the most noticeable changes have occurred over the past seven years. He said it's warmer now than it has been at any point over, at least, the past 2,000 years "and probably much longer."

"It's clear that each of the past four decades has been warmer than the one that preceded it, and it's been a steady increase in temperature since at least the 1960s," he said during a teleconference Thursday. "It's obviously been warming for a long time now."

Vose offered a 99% probability that 2022 will end up among the 10 warmest on record, barring something like a volcano messing with data. He said there is also a 50-50 chance that it will rank in the top five, citing the ongoing greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Both he and Gavin Schmidt, the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said it's likely that significant heat waves, strong storms, heavy flooding and other major climate and weather events that happened in 2021 and are happening on a larger scale over the past few years are very likely to happen in the near future.

Adding heat, Vose explained, tends to "fuel extremes" like stronger tropical cyclones or hotter and drier conditions that result in more wildfires. Those are all likely to increase in frequency and severity as the global temperature rises.

"We can predict with some confidence that we will see more and more extreme heat waves, more intense rainfall and more coastal flooding," Schmidt added. "Exactly where those will happen and what the impacts will be are unclear but, in a statistical sense, I think we can make those predictions."

Utah's coalition will join similar state-based groups emerging nationwide seeking the same goal of 30% by 2030 in the effort of combatting the emissions causing the global rise. Interestingly enough, Seed says most of the formal groups founded so far are in the West — states like Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and now Utah.

She believes the Western states are more likely to lead in the conservation efforts because a majority of federal land is located in the West. That means there's greater ability to have a say in how the land in the region is managed and protected compared to privately owned land.

Considering that over 60% of Utah's land is managed by federal entities, Utah may end up a major factor in the 30% by 2030 goal. Members of the coalition believe Utahns are willing to contribute because they've seen what's at stake over the past few years.

"Based on the results of our survey, Utahns are ready to step up because we're seeing the climate emergency every day all around us," Seed said. "We have to do something."

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