Conservation, preservation, recreation? How would you spend $820,000 on Dixie National Forest?

Composite image | Background photo Dixie National Forest, Utah, May 27, 2018, with inset stock images. Center inset shows logging truck removing old trees in Kaibab National Forest, Arizona, date not specified | Background photo photo courtesy of More Than Just Parks/U.S. Forest Service. Inset logging photo courtesy of Joe Trudeau. Other inset images from Pixabay, St. George News

ST. GEORGEFrom the gentle heights of Boulder Mountain west of Capitol Reef National Park to the hills of Washington County, Dixie National Forest encompasses nearly 2 million acres of desert, meadows, rivers, lakes and, of course, forests.

High-altitude forests in gently rolling hills characterizing the Markagunt, Pansaugunt and Aquarius plateaus in Dixie National Forest, location unspecified, May 27, 2018 | Photo courtesy of More Than Just Parks/U.S. Forest Service, St. George News

Opinions about its use or preservation reflect the wide variety of interests and values held by numerous stakeholders. Locals, out-of-state visitors, private businesses and environmental organizations all offer their own view of best management – sometimes in direct competition with one another.

Recently, the U.S. Forest Service invited anyone interested to propose their own project to address a need identified in Dixie National Forest. Through the reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, approximately $820,500 will be available to fund projects that will benefit the forest and surrounding communities.

“It’s important that we know what the public wants,” said Forest Supervisor Kevin Wright. “We do have specialists that are going to recommend projects for us, but we want to take into account the values of the public because we all want to participate and take pride in Dixie National Forest.”

The deadline for submission was originally set just 30 days after the initiative was announced on Nov. 1 but has since been extended to Jan. 31. As part of the review process, a resource advisory committee comprising local citizens representing different interest groups will oversee the recommendation process. Typically a resource advisory committee includes 15 members, with equal representation from industry, environmental groups, elected officials, and other local interests, such as ranching or tribal organizations.

File photo for illustrative purposes: a member of the Utah Conservation Corps works on a fuels reduction project in the vicinity of Bryce Canyon National Park, Garfield County, Utah, Aug. 2, 2021 | Photo courtesy of Carly Elkin, St. George News

“Do we have enough money to fund every proposal? No, but that’s why we have the resource advisory committee to make those determinations of what’s most important,” Wright said. “We can’t be everywhere at once, and we don’t necessarily see everything that they see, but this advisory committee will make recommendations as a diverse group of people with different interests.”

Agency officials will make the final decision, and approved projects will be initiated in 2022 with funds obligated by 2023.

According to the Forest Service, a wide variety of projects may be considered, including maintaining or expanding roads and trails, restoring ecosystem health for wildlife and plants, removing invasive species or taking steps to reduce wildfires.

In past years, the funds have been used to thin trees and create fuel breaks on Cedar Mountain, Pine Valley Mountain and in the vicinity of Santa Clara. Wright, who’s based out of Dixie National Forest’s Cedar City headquarters, said the effects of past projects were on display this summer.

“We saw pretty direct results during the Mammoth Creek Fire this last year,” he said. “We had a fire that was approaching a community of cabins on private land, but when it hit the fuel reduction project, it slowed down, allowing firefighters to get ahead of it, and we didn’t lose any structures.”

In this June 2021 file photo, a volunteer firefighter watches the Mammoth Fire from home in Mammoth Creek Village, Utah | Photo courtesy of Bob Donaldson, St. George News

Wright said the recreation improvements to signs and trails on Pine Valley is another example of approved submissions from previous years. 

Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools Act in 2000 to provide funding to local governments for education and community infrastructure. While the act initially ran through 2006, it has been reauthorized several times – most recently as part of the $1.2 trillion 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed by President Biden on Nov. 15.

Funds are made available under three categories: Title I going to improve roads and schools, Title II going to projects on federal lands and Title III going to rural counties. Under federal law, local governments are paid to make up for the lost revenue from untaxed federal land in their borders. 

Rural communities also bear the added financial cost of providing services like fire protection, police cooperation and road maintenance that support public lands directly and indirectly. More information about the project proposal process and resource advisory committee membership requirements can be found on the Dixie National Forest website.

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