SALT LAKE CITY — Utah may be able to put its money where its mouth is and get the chance to try to prove locals can manage a forest better than the U.S. Forest Service.
The Legislature this session will consider using $20 million toward the purchase of Tabby Mountain in Duchesne County, picking up a 28,000-acre chunk of land that is premier habitat for elk, deer and big game.
Ashley Green, assistant director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said the property northwest of Duchesne is owned by the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which is accepting letters of interest from potential buyers.
Open space conservation, such as the acquisition of Tabby Mountain, water law reform and tackling air pollution are among the top environmental issues likely to surface during the legislative session that kicked off Monday.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is recommending the purchase of Tabby Mountain in his budget and creating Utah's first state forest.
Top GOP leaders in the state have long complained that federally owned overgrown forests are at the root of increasingly catastrophic wildfire seasons that could be mitigated if Utah could manage those lands.
Lawmakers may also pursue buying 2,000 acres of former mining lands in Big Cottonwood Canyon after the current owners indicated a willigness to sell.
Aside from the possible "first forest" for Utah, the state is poised to dive headlong into another first — a law requiring secondary metering of water — if Herbert and Sen. Jacob Anderegg's efforts prove successful.
Anderegg, R-Lehi, is running legislation that would require the metering of all new secondary water connections after July 1, 2019, and for existing users by 2030.
Herbert is recommending $22 million to support metering, more informative billing practices and other water efficiency projects
Anderegg's bill, SB52, would require the state Board of Water Resources to make available $10 million in loans each year through 2030 to water delivery systems transitioning to secondary water metering.
"The status quo is untenable when it comes to the growth factor that we totally anticipate will happen in the next 20 to 25 years," he said. "What we have been doing to this point is not sustainable."
Some communities already meter secondary water use. Washington Terrace, Anderegg said, saw its consumption rate drop by 38 percent.
In Saratoga Springs, which also implemented pricing to reflect "true cost" of delivery, secondary water consumption decreased by as much as 58 percent, Anderegg said.
The move to secondary water metering gained momentum in Saratoga Springs in 2015 after city officials witnessed high irrigation water usage coupled with a rapidly growing population.
David S. Johnson, city spokesman and economic development director, said the trend was not sustainable.
"We knew we had to address this now and get ahead of the curve," Johnson said, adding that the behavioral hurdle was more difficult to overcome than the technical implementation of the system.
"Culturally, here in Utah, we have used secondary water in an unlimited fashion."
State lawmakers are also expected to take up a trio of controversial bills dealing with surplus water contracts, extraterritorial jurisdiction and a proposal to amend the Utah Constitution to give cities more flexibility over their water supplies.
Dozens of volunteers from cities, state agencies, water providers, attorneys and others worked together over the summer in meetings to fine-tune the proposals that may result in some of the most significant changes to water law in more than a century.
Utah residents can also look for new money and possibly new laws in the arena of air pollution, where Herbert has recommended $100 million infusion of one-time money to tackle the problem.
As part of this spending package, Herbert wants Utah state government to pursue implementation of an "action plan" for employees on days when air pollution is moving into the unhealthy, or yellow zone.
Such a plan would allow employees to modify normal work routines in favor of telecommuting, mass transit or carpooling.
For fiscal year 2019, as a jumpstart, the governor wants $60,000 for the Utah Department of Administrative Services to pilot a teleworking program for employees with physical workspaces in the Utah State Office Building.
There are a number of ways that $100 million, if approved, could be spent. Those include more funding for a replacement program for dirty wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.
According to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, there have been more than 1,500 wood-burning stoves and fireplaces in Cache, Utah and Salt Lake counties replaced so far, and there is a waiting list of 2,000 households.
About 12,000 people are on the agency's list to change out gas-powered lawn mowers and snowblowers for electric tools.
HEAL Utah, a local advocacy organization, would like to use some of that money for a three-year pilot project for free-fare days on Utah Transit Authority mass transit during a set number of days.
Jessica Reimer, a policy associate with the group, said the $1.2 million program would compensate UTA for the lost revenue and track ridership to see if free mass transit is enough to incentivize people to leave their vehicles parked.
The pilot program would take funding from participants like the Utah Legislature, local government and organizations like UCAIR.
"If the data shows it is not actually benefitting anything, you go back to the drawing board."
Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, is taking another swipe at providing some state funding to help pay for upgrades to freight switchers in local rail yards.
Tearing down and rebuilding one switcher with more pollution-reducing components would result in an 89 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide — a precursor to fine-particulate pollution, and an 88.5 percent reduction in PM2.5, according to an analysis by the Utah Division of Air Quality.
Handy wants $2 million to leverage against federal funding and motivate railroad companies to make the change, which is a significant investment.
His bill, HB98, echoes a similar effort he pushed during last year's legislative session and would resurrect a popular program that has not had a steady stream of funding since 2015.
The Legislature will also entertain a concurrent resolution urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to update its regulations of the freight switchers. Utah has no authority to regulate the rail yard-related emissions and must depend on voluntary efforts by railroad companies.
Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, wants to revisit a 2012 law approved in response to an anti-idling ordinance passed by Salt Lake City, eliminating the restrictions lawmakers imposed on cities.
"This is a different world than in 2012 when this passed," she said. Gutting those restrictions, such as the requirement motorists receive three warnings before police could issue a citation, gives cities greater flexibility, she added.
In other pollution matters, Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, is proposing to take Utah where no state in the United States has gone before in the adoption of a carbon tax.
The measure is promoted as revenue neutral, assessing a $10 per metric ton of carbon dioxide on polluters, i.e., power plants, and in turn cutting the sales tax on grocery store food, elimination of the sales tax on electricity and home heating fuels, and elimination of the corporate income tax on mining and manufacturing businesses.
The tax would generate $500 million for the state, of which $50 million would go toward local air quality programs and to boost economic development in rural counties.
According to the Carbon Tax Center, no U.S. state has implemented a carbon tax, and Utah is characterized as "very challenging" for its carbon tax readiness.
But economist Yoram Bauman, who spearheaded the Washington state carbon tax ballot initiative in 2016, said Utah has a chance to lead out on the greenhouse gas measure and set an example as it jockeys to host the 2030 Winter Olympics.
Bauman, who moved to Utah from Washington, is part of the Citizens Climate Lobby pushing the tax.