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Utah watersheds get multimillion dollar funding boost

Tibble Fork Dam in American Fork Canyon on Thursday, April 9, 2015.
Tibble Fork Dam in American Fork Canyon on Thursday, April 9, 2015.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — With Utah's wildfire season still knocking on the door, multiple vulnerable landscapes are slated to get some much needed attention to reduce hazardous fuels due to a new infusion of federal money.

The U.S. Department of Interior announced Friday it is committing $2.6 million to the Bureau of Land Management and the Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative, which is coordinated by the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

Landscape improvements are part of a multi-faceted response to the Western states' drought announced by the White House on Friday, with President Obama holding a video conference with governors to detail the $110 million spending package.

Some of that money, according to the White House, boosts crop insurance for farmers this year and next, and will go to grants in California to buffer the effects of nearly 20,000 jobs lost due to the effects of drought.

In Utah, the money will bolster the health of watershed areas that are key habitat for wildlife such as the greater sage grouse and mule deer, as well as landscapes that are particularly vulnerable to wildfire. The new funding will jumpstart projects that have been needed for some time, according to state officials.

“Utah’s Watershed Restoration Initiative has a significant number of projects ready to go. We can put the money to work immediately to improve our watersheds,” said Alan Clark, the department's watershed program director. “We’re committed to restoring and rehabilitating as many acres as possible, so we’re appreciative of the added resources, which will allow us to complete more projects than anticipated.”

The projects are:

• Hamlin Valley, north of Modena, Iron County: 10,000-acre project to remove pinyon/juniper from the watershed, improve the area for sage-grouse habitat and increase forage for grazing.

• Parker Front, south of Greenwich, Piute County: 3,174-acre project to improve sage grouse, mule deer and elk winter habitat and install a 21,500 gallon capacity poly tank guzzler system.

• South Canyon, south of Panguitch: 6,000-acre project to improve sage-grouse, mule deer, elk and pronghorn habitat and ranges. Hazardous fuel reduction efforts will also occur near Hatch in Garfield County by mulching hand thinning and seeding areas of pinyon/juniper.

• Yellowjacket, north of Kanab: 3,200-acre project to improve winter mule deer habitat and reduce hazardous fuels near Cave Lake by mechanically mulching, and seeding areas of pinyon/juniper.

The landscape-specific money is part of $10 million in Interior Department funding that is part of a new approach designed to achieve "fire resiliency" across varied landscapes.

"These projects will help restore critical landscapes, which is essential for mitigating the impacts of fire and climate change,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said. "The benefits of increasing the resiliency of our lands and waters to wildfires are wide-ranging, from conserving native species like the greater sage grouse to restoring rangelands, forests and watersheds. These projects support our efforts to protect our nation’s landscapes for this and future generations.”

Utah's Watershed Restoration Initiative is an effort to restore and improve watershed health in priority areas across the state. In 2015, the initiative will fund 113 projects at $17 million. The money is derived from more than 90 different state, federal and private partners that include the Utah Legislature, the BLM, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Mule Deer Foundation and the Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife.

Last year, with nearly $4 million in funding from the Utah Legislature, the initiative completed more than 130 projects. In all, close to 113,000 acres of uplands and 55 miles of stream and riparian areas were improved.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16