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Summit County forests need managing, officials say. But how to pay for it?

Fire mitigation work is needed to protect the major rivers that start in Summit County, officials say. But recent estimates for protecting the Weber River headwaters run to $128 million over 22 years.
Summit County
Fire mitigation work is needed to protect the major rivers that start in Summit County, officials say. But recent estimates for protecting the Weber River headwaters run to $128 million over 23 years.

Summit County wants to build a resilience fund to protect the headwaters of rivers crucial to the state’s water supply. The price tag? $100 million or more. County Councilors on Wednesday debated who should pay for it.

Utah’s water supply is under threat, officials say. Not just from the drought, but from forest fires that could pollute the rivers that provide drinking water for millions.

Summit County is home to the headwaters of four of those rivers, and County Councilors for years have said one of their chief responsibilities is protecting that natural resource.

Jessica Kirby, Summit County’s public lands manager, presented a plan for doing just that. She outlined on Wednesday a so-called Weber River Watershed Resilience Fund. It’s a financial arrangement to compile money from county, state, federal and private sources to pay for loggers and foresters to clear the tree-choked hillsides flanking the Weber River.

The numbers Kirby shared were stark: a project area of 80,000 acres and treatment costs of $1,600 per acre. That adds up to $128 million and 23 years of work at $5.6 million per year.

“It feels like you're drinking out of seven fire hoses thinking about this project,” she told the County Council.

The project site includes Weber Canyon near Oakley, Beaver Creek near Kamas and the Rockport Reservoir. According to Kirby’s presentation, the Upper Weber River headwaters encompasses 215,000 acres. This project targets a portion of that.

The goal for the resilience fund is to create a pool of money to pay for annual projects to tackle the work. To seed the fund, the county is planning to use $1.5 million in its own pandemic relief money and $1 million in a matching grant from the state.

That forms the bulk of the initial $3.7 million fund balance. The county hopes to receive grant funding and work closely with state and federal officials to fund future projects. Kirby also identified homeowners associations, private landowners and ski resorts as other potential revenue sources.

Councilor Chris Robinson questioned the notion of treating a project area of this size at this cost. At $1,600 an acre and hundreds of thousands of acres in need of work, Robinson suggested the county focus on areas where people and their structures abut forest land.

“This $1,600 an acre, if you extrapolated that over every square inch of the forest and then try to think — and the real stewards are the Forest Service themselves — there is no way that that amount of money could be spent,” Robinson said.

Councilor Doug Clyde supported the concept of fire mitigation. He indicated it was necessary to stave off the threat of catastrophic wildfire and said these types of projects need to happen across the West.

Though they don’t appear to diverge on the importance of the work, Clyde and Robinson debated the feasibility of accomplishing it this way. Clyde also suggested the cost of treating the land could be more than Kirby and her team estimated.

Clyde: “The $1,600 number is a good number five years ago. $3,000 is the right number today. And that's what it costs.”

Robinson: “Well then, extrapolate that over the million acres in the county.”

Clyde : “Yeah that's, that's a bunch of money. Hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Robinson: “No, that's $3 billion. I'm just saying that I — I think we need to be careful here that we come up with a plan that is realistic.”

Robinson suggested trying to include private business in the enterprise through timber sales and other means. And he said if the watershed is at great peril, the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District should step up to protect it.

“Those that should be most concerned about it should be carrying the biggest laboring oar, from a water quality, a water supply point of view. And they're token — they're bit players,” Robinson said.

According to the presentation, Weber Basin has committed $50,000 to the fund in its initial year. The presentation included a proposal for a county-wide tax to support the fund, which County Manager Tom Fisher said was not being considered this year. It also included a potential rate-payer fee for Weber Basin water users, which, according to the district’s website, number 700,000.

The line item to support the county’s $1.5 million contribution to the fund is included in the budget the council is expected to approve Wednesday.

Alexander joined KPCW in 2021 after two years reporting on Summit County for The Park Record. While there, he won many awards for covering issues ranging from school curriculum to East Side legacy agriculture operations to land-use disputes. He arrived in Utah by way of Madison, Wisconsin, and western Massachusetts, with stints living in other areas across the country and world. When not attending a public meeting or trying to figure out what a PID is, Alexander enjoys skiing, reading and watching the Celtics.