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SALT LAKE CITY — A pair of national forests in Utah are among the U.S. Forest Service's 11 priorities slated to receive a cut of $490 million for projects that help reduce wildfire risks across the fire-prone West, agency officials announced on Thursday.
The federal agency says nearly $25.2 million will go toward projects in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache and Dixie national forests. The two forests are listed as high-risk "firesheds" in the West, and projects will particularly focus on ways to reduce wildfire risks in the Wasatch and Pine Valley landscapes of each respective forest.
Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack explained that the funds, provided through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, will be used to help restore "resilient old-growth forest conditions."
"It is no longer a matter of if a wildfire will threaten many western communities in these landscapes, it is a matter of when," he said. "The need to invest more and to move quickly is apparent."
The agency began the project last year, although the original round of funding skipped Utah.
Most of the funds headed toward the Beehive State this year will go toward projects in the Wasatch landscape, the forest area just east of Utah's main urban core. Officials say a little more than one-third of the Wasatch's 1.1 million-acre landscape has either "high or very high" fire hazard, which poses a threat to watersheds, natural habitats, private properties and even recreational opportunities.
A Forest Service document says $18.25 million will be used for "cross-boundary mechanical treatments," including prescribed fires and "creating or strengthening" fire lines in the forest. The agency says it wants to treat 14,200 acres of land during the 2023 fiscal year and at least 105,000 over the next seven to 10 years.
The rest of the money — close to $6.92 million — will head to similar projects for the Pine Valley area of southwest Utah. The goal there is to treat 6,554 acres during the fiscal year and at least 43,500 acres over the next decade, helping reduce wildfire risks in St. George and other communities in the surrounding area.
Regional Forest Service officials point out that the area's low elevation and topography "make it susceptible to shifting fire hazards and climate change, creating an urgent need to reduce the risk of potentially catastrophic wildfire."
The other nine project areas are spread out between Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Forest Service officials said that all of the projects were selected based on their proximity to communities, critical infrastructure, water sources and underserved communities, including tribal lands.
The Forest Service awarded the Plumas Community Protection Projects Landscape in northern California with the most money from this year's round of funding. The region, which has been the center of many large wildfires over the past few years, is set to receive $273.93 million for fire mitigation projects.
"Doing this work in the right place, at the right time, and at the right scale, combined with the use of emergency authorities, will accelerate our planning, consultation, contracting, hiring and project work to reduce wildfire risk and improve forest health and resilience," said Forest Service Chief Randy Moore.
Additional funds are expected to be announced over the next few years through the Wildfire Crisis Strategy, which was created last year.
There were 963 wildfires across Utah last year, which burned 25,551 acres altogether, each significant decreases from 2021. While some of that was because of improved fire conditions from rain, the number of human-caused fires also dropped by 11% from the previous year.