Lawmaker takes up climate concerns in wildfire bill
Environment • Youth advocates link wildfires with changing climate and costs in the future.
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Sara Ma knew from the start it would be an uphill battle to get her state leaders to start thinking about climate change.

The West High senior, along with other members of the iMatter youth campaign, had already marched to the state Capitol. Their petition to get state agencies to begin to account for climate change in their lawmaking had been rejected. And their education efforts before the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration had fallen flat.

In short, nothing happened. That's not a surprise in a state where leaders have consistently rejected climate science, she reasoned. So, they regrouped.

"Being in Utah," Ma said, "we need to start smaller."

And, when the group began meeting with legislators about their proposal for a bill, they were pleased to find someone in the dominant GOP who was willing to work with them.

Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, has opened a bill file for legislation that would examine how climate change is expected to drive more and bigger wildfires and to begin planning for future wildfire fighting and suppression costs.

"We have the idea, the concept," said Ma, who commutes the 15 miles or so to school and work by bike each day to ease her own carbon footprint. "Me especially, I want our legislators to recognize that climate change is here and it's happening and there is a cost and we must plan ahead."

Powell, an attorney, said he was impressed by the depth of knowledge iMatter members had, as well as their passion.

Similar concerns are also being raised by constituents in his current district, which encompasses the conservative-leaning ranches of Wasatch County and energy fields of the Uinta Basin, and those within the boundaries of the new district he will represent if re-elected, which includes liberal-leaning Summit County.

"That's a discussion we need to have in the Legislature," he said, noting that lawmakers have been resistant to it in the past. "I want to start a discussion, a dialogue among my colleagues."

In early meetings with Powell, iMatter members shared some of what they had learned about wildfire in Utah. For instance, they told how the state already has seen 400,000 acres burned this year with suppression costs of $47.1 million — part of a trend prompted by record hot and dry periods.

They also told how rehabilitating burned areas often costs more than fighting the wildfire itself. Their example? The 2007 Milford Flat fire which racked up a $5 million bill for suppression, while rehabilitating the scarred forest and range cost $17 million.

That's what led to the concept for the bill, which is currently being drafted by the Legislature's lawyers.

"I've been learning a lot," Powell said. "It's not a simple science."

Ma points to the voluminous research on the changing climate and says "we have scientists on our side." But it was not just that Powell was willing to listen and willing to work with them.

"Most of all," she said, "I think he was interested in us kids."

fahys@sltrib.com

Twitter: @judyfutah