December 02, 2019

Watershed Symposium: Playing With Fire

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By Community Outreach and Education Intern, Nick Wagner

At the 2019 Watershed Symposium our Executive Director, Carl Fisher, lead a very important discussion with esteemed members of the community about human caused climate change, fire suppression, and how to combat these problems with a growing community. These members who joined and helped shed light on the topic are the following: Laura Briefer, Director of Public Utilities in SLC; Bekee Hotze, District Ranger of Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest; and Brian Trick the Wasatch Front Area Manager of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands. 

As Carl started us off, He asked about what some of the major concerns  would be if we continue to build in and around the Wasatch or do we "re-wild" in order to bring back some of the natural occurrences  that we lost due to human interaction and infrastructure.  Bekee Hotze started us off by informing us on what happens when over logging takes place in areas close to a watershed. As it turns out cutting down mass amounts of trees led to mass erosion which causes a very high amount of sediment in the water. Similar effects come from construction in the same areas. This leads to people getting sick because of the unhealthy drinking water caused by sediment. By re-planting however, erosion is slowed from the roots of trees acting as anchors keeping the soil from being eroded away. When logging is not the best option, there must be something else we can do in order to ensure brush and undergrowth of the forest doesn’t get out of hand. Brian Trick says if we leave the forest to grow out of control that the forest would be more susceptible to wildfires. As the Wasatch provides up to 90% of the valley with water, something has to change in order to keep the public healthy as well as ensuring the Wasatch forest gets healthier too. 

With the problem highlighted, Carl asked the panel what the greatest challenge in restoring the watershed and forest is. As of now, our forest may seem healthy, however there is little room for growth and multiple invasive species that have taken over. The panel explored an idea that would help solve this problem, controlled fires. By having controlled fires, Bekee Hotze says more area for growth would open up creating more diversity in our forests. Brian Trick continued on saying that the public needs to change its perception on forest management as well. Harvesting forest grounds and thinning forests help control forest fires from being too intense. Brian and his team keep a close eye on areas like WUI that are desperate for help and protection. They use a computational system called UWRAP to create a Fire Risk Index so resources are used more efficiently. When these areas of high risk are identified, Becky Hotze says the first step is to go in and cut down or get rid of the dead trees. Leaving the some brush in order to give the forest nutrients to recover properly after a controlled fire. The idea of starting fires on purpose seems backwards but in reality they are needed, as long as they are maintained and controlled properly. Bekee Hotze is pleased to say in the last 20 years and 121 pile burns there has been zero escapes. This stat ensures that the risks are very low when the correct precautions are met. Implementing these ideas and notions on a wider scale would greatly help restore the Wasatch Forest health while also keeping our drinking water safe from contamination. 

As Carl Fisher concluded "Just because we haven't done anything with our own hands doesn’t mean it's (the forest) in a natural state." In order to ensure the Wasatch stays in a healthy state, We need to educate our youth and public on proper forest management.  We are doing great work to protect our forest and watershed, but with the stakes so high we cannot risk being average when it comes to the safety of our forest  and more so for the civilians whom drinking the water directly from those forest. We would like to thank all of those who came to the event as well as those in charge. We are forever grateful for the people who care about our natural forests and the watershed. 

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