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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Sen. Lee Focuses On Forest Management When It Comes To Wildfires, Experts Say It’s More Complex

A photo of a firefighter looking at a fire in Los Angeles, California.
Kevin Lendio
Wildfires in California have burned over 3 million acres. As agencies battle flames there and across the West, Sen. Mike Lee, R-UT, discussed on Wednesday poor forest management and being proactive in fire prevention.

During a Senate hearing Wednesday, Sen. Mike Lee, R-UT, fixated on poor forest management while talking about wildfires raging across the West. He later tweeted what’s happening in California is because of bad management, not climate change.

Though forest management is part of the equation, not connecting wildfires to climate change is missing a major point, said Simon Wang, who teaches climate dynamics at Utah State University.

Fire seasons are getting longer and more intense due to a hotter climate. In parts of Utah, temperatures have risen at twice the global average. With warmer, drier temperatures in the West, one spark can quickly spread.

When it comes to addressing wildfires, Wang said people need to talk about all of the contributing factors — like the impacts of climate change, human development and forest management in order to make significant progress.

“If we miss one, then catastrophe will really happen because it will come through the cracks and then make a huge disaster like we’re seeing on the West Coast,” Wang said.

Lee said during the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forest and Mining that the problems people and the environment are facing were predictable. That strict management regulation has led to the fires currently burning.

“Management of our forests has regrettably become hamstrung, partly by regulations promulgated by bureaucrats often operating many thousands of miles away from the lands that they’re in charge of administering,” Lee said.

He’s pushing for deregulation for prescribed burns and for more proactive forest and fire management.

Mark Brunson, director of the Great Basin Fire Science Exchange, said while Lee was mostly accurate in his comments, there isn’t a quick fix.

We can't simply cut or ‘prescribed burn’ our way out of the problem,” Brunson, who is also a professor of environment and society at USU, said. “We had almost 100 years where we were suppressing every fire and not letting fires do what Sen. Lee said is a natural part of the process of ecology.”

The history of forest management complicates how to address it today, as well as the other factors Wang mentioned.

“We can't find a single silver bullet that's going to solve our forest management problem, or that's going to solve our wildfire problem, or pretty much any other problem that we're facing in the environment,” Brunson said.

So far this year, over 250,000 acres have burned in Utah and it’s been a record-breaking year for human-caused fires.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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