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Expert says ‘Trees are the enemy’ when it comes to water production

Lawmakers’ group discusses thinning forests to save Utah’s water

SHARE Expert says ‘Trees are the enemy’ when it comes to water production
Snow-covered pine trees are pictured in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

Snow-covered pine trees are pictured in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest in Millcreek on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

One of the state’s leading experts on hydrology and snowpack said “trees are the enemy” — conifers that is — as Utah’s forested acres become overcrowded with millions of trees that need attention.

Randy Julander, who was the Utah Snow Survey supervisor for 28 years with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service and is now retired, told a caucus of lawmakers Thursday that of the five million forested acres in the state, 1.2 million acres of those consist of dead trees.

“Why? You don’t have enough water in the watershed to support that many trees,” he said.

Julander came out in support of an effort led by Salt Lake County Council member Dea Theodore, whose district includes the Wasatch canyons like Little and Big Cottonwood. She recently flagged the issue for Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and leadership in a letter imploring action this session.

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, is rounding up support from county commissioners and other lawmakers across the state to get funding from the state Legislature for tree thinning projects that may include mechanized means, prescribed burns or other methods.

Julander warned that such efforts will be met with staunch opposition and often take years, if not decades, to complete.

“Everyone loves trees,” he said.

But he pointed out that 42% of snow that falls on conifers remains on the branches and is lost, and those trees can grow a foot a year. Pictures from the turn of the century show 10 to 20 trees per acre and now there are “upwards of 100 to 200 trees,” which he said is not sustainable.

He emphasized that the problem is not too many trees, but the wrong kind of trees.

On average, 90% of Salt Lake City’s water supply comes from mountain snowpack, but Julander said people would do well to remember that every plant, every inch of soil, has its own straw sucking up what it needs before any water reaches the streams or rivers — and human populations.

Julander was also critical of California research that described the current drought as the worst in 12 centuries for the western part of North America.

“In fact, this drought is virtually statistically identical to the ones we saw in the 30s,” he said. “The droughts that you saw from 800 to 1100 are the droughts that drove indigenous peoples out of this area. And if they can’t make it during those kinds of droughts, what chance do you guys have?”

He later told the Deseret News he is critical of the study because it took a huge region of the country, too huge, and narrowed its timeline to the last 22 years — which curiously mirrors the beginning of the West’s drought this century.

“That should pop up as an alarm in anyone’s mind,” he said, adding that most climatological periods cover the 30-year normal.

And while lauding the attention that is being paid to the Great Salt Lake by lawmakers, Ben Burr, executive director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition said Lake Powell deserves some attention as well instead of a narrative pushed by some groups who are already “dancing on the grave” of the nation’s second largest reservoir.

The coalition is a conservative, recreation-access group which is adding its voice to the water debate.

Critics of the forest thinning proposal say it is not the answer.