USDA Forest Service Launches New Efforts in Utah to Address the Wildfire Crisis


Forest Service Press Release

Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Jan. 19 expanded efforts to reduce wildfire risk across the western U.S., directly affecting national forests here in Utah.

These investments, made possible through the Biden Administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), will directly benefit at-risk communities and critical infrastructure across 11 additional landscapes in Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

“It is no longer a matter of if a wildfire will threaten many western communities in these landscapes, it is a matter of when,” said Secretary Vilsack. “The need to invest more and to move quickly is apparent. This is a crisis and President Biden is treating it as one. Today’s announcement will bring more than $490 million to 11 key landscapes across the western United States, and will be used to restore our national forests, including the restoration of resilient old-growth forest conditions.”

In Utah, the Wasatch and Pine Valley landscapes were selected for increased funding.

The Wasatch Landscape is approximately 1.1 million acres, encompassing 714,000 acres of National Forest System lands. Approximately 382,000 acres, or 44 percent, of the Wasatch landscape is classified as a high or very high-risk fireshed, posing a considerable threat to the function of vital watersheds, plant and wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and private property.

The Pine Valley Landscape is approximately 400,000 acres, encompassing 250,000 acres of National Forest System lands. Values at risk in this priority area include water quality, watershed health and resiliency, critical infrastructure, including major national energy corridors, wildland-urban interface, and intermixed public and private land in St. George and adjacent communities.

This announcement complements the agency’s 10 landscape projects announced in 2022 and the agency’s broader strategy to address critical infrastructure, community protection and forest resilience at risk to catastrophic wildfire. Combined with the initial investment landscapes, these actions will span nearly 45 million acres across 137 of the 250 high-risk firesheds in the western U.S., with a total investment of $930 million on 21 landscapes across 26.7 million acres in 2023. This work will mitigate risk to approximately 200 communities within these landscapes.

“This is excellent news,” said Utah Governor Spencer Cox. “The best way to prevent catastrophic wildfires is to actively and aggressively manage our forests, which takes money and focus on the areas that need it most. Secretary Vilsack and I have talked extensively about this topic for the past two years, and I’m thrilled with these investments. Better forest management means fewer and milder fires, which means lives and homes saved, cleaner air and water, more water in our reservoirs, and healthier forests for Utahns to enjoy. I’m grateful for our solid collaboration with the Forest Service, for the hard work of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, and to our Congressional partners for recognizing the value of these investments for Utah.”

“We have an amazing opportunity to address the wildfire crisis through the investments being announced today,” said Intermountain Regional Forester Mary Farnsworth. “In Utah, we are uniquely positioned with an established and very successful shared stewardship program that focuses on working together with our Tribal, State, Federal and local partners to implement on the ground projects that protects communities and watersheds from catastrophic fire.”

“Our partnership with the US Forest Service is vital to our success on-the-ground of addressing the ongoing wildfire crisis in the state. We work hand-in-hand with our federal partners to identify areas of high risk to protect the communities and resources of Utah,” said Utah Director of Forestry, Fire and State Lands Jamie Barnes. “Secretary Vilsack’s efforts will help us continue the work we are currently doing and will dramatically increase the pace and scale of work in the Wasatch and Pine Valley areas to improve the health of our forests and protect our critical watersheds.”

To meet this moment, Secretary Vilsack is also authorizing the Forest Service to utilize a new emergency authority in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, combined with strategic implementation of existing authorities. Doing so will enable the agency to move more quickly in applying targeted treatments to high-risk firesheds identified in the agency’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy, as well as post-fire recovery areas most impacted the past several years.

These actions are required to be conducted in an ecologically appropriate manner that maximizes the retention of large trees, considers historically underserved communities and tribes, and is done collaboratively with communities and partners.

“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. “Collaboration with Tribes, communities and partners will remain a priority, and we will continue to use the best available science when carrying out this important work.”

Background: The Forest Service Wildfire Crisis Strategy  

This announcement comes on the anniversary of the launch of the Forest Service’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy, which debuted Jan. 18, 2022. A few months later in April, the agency introduced the initial 10 fire-prone landscapes that are now funded for the next five years through Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds.

Since releasing its Wildfire Crisis Strategy one year ago, the Forest Service and its partners have used the best available science and data to identify the highest risk landscapes for treatment projects. The Forest Service found that around 80% of the wildfire risk to communities is concentrated in less than 10% of “firesheds,” or areas where wildfires are likely to threaten communities and infrastructure. These targeted investments focus on firesheds of the highest risk, where projects are ready to begin or to expand.

The 10-year strategy calls for treating up to 20 million acres on national forests and grasslands and up to 30 million acres of treatments on other federal, state, Tribal, private and family lands.

Over the past 20 years, many states have had record catastrophic wildfires, devastating communities, lives and livelihoods, and causing billions of dollars in damage. More than 10 million acres – more than twice the size of New Jersey – burned each year across the U.S. in 2020, 2017 and 2015.

The Wildfire Crisis Strategy builds on current work, leverages congressional authorities and partnerships to support the department’s work to mitigate wildfire risk, and restore forest health over the next decade. In addition to State Forest Action Plans, the strategy also aligns with the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, Tribal Forest Protection Act, Good Neighbor Authority, Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership and Shared Stewardship agreements.

In June 2022, USDA released the Secretary’s Memorandum on Climate Resilience and Carbon Stewardship of America’s National Forests and Grasslands. The Secretary’s memo builds on previous actions on climate change, equity and forest resilience, but provides more specific and time-bound actions to integrate into agency programs. The Forest Service used the guidance in the Secretary’s memo to better inform the selection criteria for projects under the Wildfire Crisis Strategy, including equity, source water protection, community infrastructure and wildlife corridors. Recognizing that insects, disease and wildfire are among the most significant threats to mature and old growth forests, in alignment with the Administration, the Forest Service will be targeting hazardous fuels reduction projects to address these threats to promote the recruitment, protection and restoration of mature or old-growth forests.

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