Dinner with Senator Lee
On February 2nd 2019, the Cache County Republican Party hosted the Lincoln Day Dinner at Utah State University with keynote speaker Senator Mike Lee. Earlier in the week I received a text message with a link to the event from a friend. The first thought I had was relay the info to the CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers with a joke about his friend coming to our campus. What actually conspired after this was something that I wouldn’t have ever imagined.
“A friend should always underestimate your virtues and an enemy overestimate your faults - Mario Puzo, The Godfather
An email came in confirming that Utah BHA had sponsored a table and I began talking with chapter members, student chapter members and well respected members of the local conservation world. The most common response to my invite was something along the lines of ‘I can’t sit down in a room with that guy.’ My thoughts were almost the opposite as how could we not jump on the opportunity to look the man in the face and tell him how much we care about our public lands. It all came together last minute but I was able to gather a great group of people from our BHA chapter as well as Dr. Edd Hammill who is an Assistant Professor in the Watershed Sciences/ Ecology Center of the Quinney College of Natural Resources at USU.
The drive to the campus had a several BHA signs stating loud and clear “Utah is for public land owners”. We passed a few more of those signs walking into the Taggart Student Center on campus where the dinner was held. It felt like most days for us who have attended school there but there was a major difference this time. We were there to sit down in a room full of people who typically are against everything we stand for and listen to a man speak who killed the bill that would have permanently reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund. I have to admit I was nervous to see how things would go once we checked in and said we were the ones who sponsored the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers table. Without a blink of an eye we were handed our table number info, greeted by Chris Booth the Cache GOP Chairman and his Co Chair. Chris took a moment to expressed his gratitude of our attendance at the event and shortly after we were directed towards out seats.
The event began, awards were given out to local business owners who have gone above and beyond to support our community then on to the state and local representatives who were given a few moments to speak to the guests. Some with quotes from former President Lincoln, a few with plans to serve our community this coming year, others discussed areas of concern they had and one with some pretty strange choice of words while explaining the republicans push to “spread our tentacles out into the Mexican communities here in Utah” in an attempt to show them “they are conservatives, they just don’t know it yet”. The main speakers we were waiting to here from were Senator Mitt Romney and of course Senator Mike Lee. A representative from Senator Romney’s office spoke on behalf of him due to a scheduling conflict. He was very short but made mention of the new “Public Lands” policies they were working on. I am unsure of exactly what he was referring to and couldn’t find him afterwards to clarify. The only thing that comes to mind is ‘Protect Utah’s Rural Economy Act’ which was reintroduced by Senator Lee and Romney January 9th 2019. Their claims are that “The PURE Act returns the decision-making and management power of our public lands to those closest to the land.” and “puts an end to excessive land grabs and provides rural Utahns a voice in land management”.
To others it sounds like their goal is exactly what they claim they are trying to protect Utah from; excessive transferring of our federal public lands to the state so they can they managment the land how they see fit. Which would be great if Utah wasn’t notorious for selling off land at any chance they get. A more current example would be Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Land Administration (SITLA) moving to sell Tabby Mountain, a 28,000-acre block of trust lands cherished for its big game hunting.
After a few of the freshman representatives for Cache County introduced themselves it was time for Senator Lee to take the stage. We were eager to hear what he had to say about the bill s.47 which is introduced earlier this month and aims to once again make an attempt at the permanent reauthorization of the LWCF, his thoughts on Tabby Mountain being sold off, or anything related to public lands. Instead he spent his whole speech discussing a very recent push from some members of the Democratic Party to pass new bills pertaining to abortion. Not one word was mentioned about public lands as we had hoped, and soon after the event drew to a close. Most of our party had to make their way home but BHA Northern Region Board member Ashley Amundsen, USU Chapter Secretary Garrett Vasa and myself the USU Chapter Vice President decided to see if we could ask the senator a few questions.
We waited in short line where it seemed almost as if we were being dodged and I even overheard the senator's wife say something I couldn’t quite make out about Backcountry Hunters and Anglers to him. At last we were the final group standing and were shaking hands with Senator Lee introducing ourselves and what we represent. After a joking about being a vegan we asked if it would be ok to get a picture with him. I am sure it was much more awkward for him as we moved in front of the USU Seal on the podium and he posed for a photo with members of an organization that is very vocal about being against his very clear goal of taking our public lands. The Senator was polite and when Ashley asked if he would be willing to answer a couple questions he agreed. As she began he stopped and asked her to wait a moment then said he would take questions while we walked to his car. It took some time to wait for the goodbyes but eventually we were on our way.
The State Director and I talked about my move from Arizona to Michigan and then to Utah as I explained how I took our public land for granted while in Arizona, but following a lack of access to during my time in Michigan I appreciate it more than ever. He told me what he thought I wanted to hear. It was then that I noticed I had been separated from Senator Lee. I was a little ahead while Ashley was talking with the senator about the public lands in Utah, Garrett was behind talking with another member of the senators staff. I dropped back in time to hear the beginning of Ashley’s questions.
She started with:
“Is there currently anything coming this legislative season we should be aware of?”
Senator Lee then responded by saying:
“I honestly can’t give you an answer to that because I’m not serving on the state legislature. I have no idea. Well, I wish I could answer that for you.”
Ashley continued by asking:
“Is there anything nationally that we should be aware of."
Senator Lee responded by saying:
“ Yeah, I mean, I, I think, it should be a concern to everyone, that the Federal Government owns less than fifteen percent of the land in every state east of Colorado. Colorado and west the Federal Government owns at least 15% of the land and in the case of our state its two thirds. It’s just wrong. It’s, It’s, It’s gross mismanagement. It’s environmental catastrophe waiting to happen.”
The member of the senators staff in the back interrupted by saying:
“What state would have joined the Union under those terms?” Lee responded to him saying “None. None, not one”.
The member of his staff laughed and Ashley continued:
“For the Federal Government to own that much or to own that little?”
Senator Lee continued:
“ To own that much. It’s, It’s just wrong. If any land owner, an individual, or a corporation, a non profit would have owned more then five or ten percent of the land in any state people would freak out, because that would give that person or company disproportionate control of that state’s economy. And we’re completely beholding of the Federal Government here. The State Parks are managed about 50 times better than the Federal Parks. State Forest Lands, where they exist in this country are managed about 100 times better than Federal Forest Land. Any way, that’s how I see it. Um. National Parks are great, a lot of people like to think we are talking about National Parks when we are talking about Federal Public Land but a lot of it is garden variety BLM Land, it’s just sitting there fallow. Anyways I think it is wrong.”
At this point I considered asking the senator if his statements about the management of State Parks versus Federal Parks were facts or personal opinion. I think a statement of that type would have only caused him to end the conversation before we reached his car so I decided to go with a more practical question that I find keeps going unanswered.
I asked the senator:
“In the case of places like Utah that have catastrophic wildfires and all kinds of issues with that. If the state was to own that land how do you expect them to be able to afford to manage that or deal in those types of wildfire situations.”
He responded by saying:
“Look at the land the state does own. The land that the state does own has wildfires that are managed and much more easily manageable. The fires get out, get put out much faster and they become less severe. Just, I mean the proof, the proof is in the pudding. The evidence, um, is completely against the Federal Government. Uh, It is one of the great myths that the Federal Government, those that like wide scale Federal Public Land ownership thrive on, is that some how the states are barbarians that can’t handle this stuff. It just, there’s no evidence for that. In fact the evidence is to the contrary.”
It seemed that I got a lot of information that never really answered my question so I decided to attempt to rephrase it in a way that would leave less room for a roundabout response:
“I think in this particular question that people you know are asking, are asking me when I tell them I am coming to this dinner. It’s not that they don’t think they are capable it’s that they think can’t afford it.”
His response was not much of an answer:
“We can’t afford to do it the way the Federal Government is doing it. Which is, we don’t manage the land. You have an excessive buildup of fuel.”
We had reached the car and the State Director said “It was nice to meet you” signalling the end of our conversation. I wish there was a few minutes more to maybe get some sort of an answer or atleast go out with a bang asking him why he is against the reauthorization of the LWCF but they said goodbye, we thanked them for their time while we watched them pile into an SUV.
While walking to our vehicles we talked about Senator Lee’s statements on the Utah wildfires. Not more than an hour beforehand I was eating dinner with Dr. Hammill on the research team hired by the state to do a study on the same topic. The report, “Wildfire in Utah, The Physical and Economic Consequences of Wildfire” was sponsored by Utah House Bill 464, enacted by the Utah Legislature during its 2016 Legislative session. There were a few different goals of the legislation with this study but the one in particular that I found interesting is Dr. Hammill was given the task of assessing the severity of wildfire in Utah with regard to public land ownership and management. In opposition to Senator Lee’s statements the study demonstrates it is more likely that physical characteristics such as steep slopes,, aspect and vegetative cover are responsible for variation in wildfire risk. South facing slopes with overstocked forests are more commonly found on State Land and are prone to a higher risk of catastrophic wildfires. However, state lands tend to have less steep slopes, reducing the risk of wildfire.
What this means is that the main drivers of fire on the landscape are physical characteristics, which can not be easily modified by land managers (i.e. it is impossible to alter whether a slope is north or south facing). Therefore, if lands were transferred from federal to state lands, the state would be limited into the impact it could have on wildfire risk. I have attached some data below from the paper because facts speak louder than feelings. It’s often that people speak with emotion and not always accurate information which can snowball into something they actually believe is the truth no matter how false it may be. The selling of our public lands is not going to give us more of a say in the way they are managed, it won’t stop catastrophic wildfires and it won’t bring better management to those lands. In my opinion the reason we see more Federal Land ownership out west is because we learned from our mistake after seeing how the states over developed the East Coast of the United States. Past administrations made decisions to prevent these wild places from turning into a land of sky rises, traffic jams and cookie cutter neighborhoods. With people like Senator Lee in charge we will constantly be battling to uphold those past protections to keep this land public and keep this land pristine.
The Dollar Ridge Fire burns near Strawberry Reservoir on Friday, July 6, 2018. Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Wildfire in Utah- The Physical and Economic Consequences of Wildfire
CHAPTER 4: WILDFIRE RISK MODELING Dr. Edd Hammill 2017
“The topographical distribution of lands within federal and state-managed areas indicates that federal lands have an over-representation of steep slopes. This high number of steep slopes may partially account for the increased rates of fire on federal lands. However, our analyses also show that federal lands have a greater proportion of north facing slopes than state lands, the aspect associated with the lowest fire threat. These unchangeable, physical environmental properties of federal and state lands may influence the ability of managers to reduce fire threat. Areas with south facing aspects and steep slopes have relatively high fire threats which are more commonly found in state lands. “A recently released USFS study found that some 54% of Utah's forests are fully occupied and that 21% of the state's forests are overstocked. Overstocked forests are at greater risk of increased mortality due to competitive stress, and also at greater risk of catastrophic fire and are thus good candidates for fuels reduction treatments.”
Our analyses revealed that areas with south facing aspects and steep slopes have relatively high fire threats, as has been demonstrated in earlier investigations (Carmel et al. 2009, Haire and McGarigal 2009, Alexandre et al. 2016). The observed increase in fire threat observed on south facing slopes is believed to be a due to reductions in fuel moisture associated with increased solar exposure (Dillon et al. 2011). The topographical distribution of lands within federal and state-managed areas indicates that federal lands have an over-representation of steep slopes. This high number of steep slopes may partially account for the increased rates of fire on federal lands. However, our analyses also show that federal lands have a greater proportion of north facing slopes than state lands, the aspect associated with the lowest fire threat. These unchangeable, physical environmental properties of federal and state lands may influence the ability of managers to reduce fire threat. With respect the relationship between vegetation types and fire threat, our analyses demonstrate that several vegetation cover types associated with lower fire threats (tree cover between 30% and 80%) are more common on Wildfire in Utah 67 federal than state land. Conversely, certain vegetation cover types associated with increased fire threat are less prevalent on state land than federal land (e.g. shrub cover between 10% and 30%).
In many cases, conducting fuels reduction activities to reduce fire threat may be an economically viable management strategy. Pre-emptively reducing threat reduces the need for subsequent fire suppression, and activities such as the removal of woody debris may provide useful products for sale (Evans and Finkral 2009). However, threat reduction activities are relatively costly, meaning that they are often conducted over relatively small spatial scales in a targeted manner. Locations for threat reduction are selected on the basis of fire threat, perceived effectiveness of reduction, and proximity to high value areas (Watts and Hall 2016). This topic is addressed in greater detail in Chapter 10.