Anyone who has spent time in the forested alpine highlands that surround Brian Head, Utah knows they are one of the state’s many hidden treasures. People from all over the country come to this corner of Dixie National Forest to enjoy its natural beauty and utilize its resources.
It has been devastating to watch a catastrophic wildfire burning across these mountains. I am grateful for the firefighters who are working around the clock in dangerous and difficult conditions. They deserve our support and prayers.
In Utah, the only thing spreading faster than the fire is the wave of public opinion about it. Utahns are discussing who is to blame, how we got here, and what we can do to prevent more fires like this from starting in the future. This is an important discussion.
As beautiful as the Dixie National Forest is, those who had observed it over the last few decades knew something was wrong. We knew that a catastrophic fire wasn’t a question of if — it was a question of when.
Like so many Western fires, this one was started by an individual who thought he was acting safely. This is a sobering reminder that wildfires can be started by anyone, anywhere. It’s also worth pointing out that if this person hadn’t started the fire, a fire of similar magnitude was likely to occur at a future date.
For this reason, those who played a role in managing this forest share responsibility for this fire. Like many of Utah’s forests, Dixie National Forest faces many threats besides fire, including beetle infestations and drought. The prolonged decimation of the timber industry in Utah has taken an important fire-management tool away from forest managers. Resistance to controlled burns has created dangerous levels of fuel build-up. Additionally, protracted lawsuits by activist environmental groups often tie the hands of local land managers and prevent them from taking the timely actions necessary to sustain forest health.
It’s easy to point fingers while fires rage, but I believe Congress deserves the most blame for the Brian Head Fire. After all, it is Congress that is responsible for passing laws that have resulted in the basket-case management of our national forests. As a member of Congress, I plan to do whatever I can to remedy the situation that is turning our forests into tinder boxes.
Last Congress, I introduced the Catastrophic Wildfire Prevention Act to expedite wildfire prevention projects in at-risk forests and wildlife habitats. The bill would give federal land managers firm deadlines for reviewing and approving projects and empower them to use proven wildfire prevention strategies like livestock grazing and timber harvesting.
I plan to reintroduce a strengthened version of this bill that will empower state and local officials to prevent nearby forests from reaching the point of catastrophe. Any solution that restores our forests to good health must empower those who live closest to them.
If this fire has taught us anything, it is that we don’t have time to lose. Too many forests across the country are just as vulnerable as Dixie. While Brian Head is the largest fire in the country, other fires are already burning across the West and it is still early in the fire season.
It is urgent that Congress fix the problem it created. As the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forest, and Mining, I plan to work with my colleagues to pass this reform. I will also be reaching out to local officials, land managers, and the people of Utah to learn how we can better steward the environment.