Trends and Issues that Define Utah’s Lands
Utah’s prosperity is based on the health of its natural resources. Utah landscapes are facing serious pressures from multiple sources. The current drought, changing land-use practices, and rapidly rising populations are increasing demands on the state’s wildland and agricultural ecosystems. The stability of Utah’s cities and towns, the quality of our air, the quality and quantity of our water, and the way we work, live, and get outdoors are all built on the foundation of healthy lands. To maintain the quality of life Utahns enjoy, we need to work together to avoid degradation of these natural systems. In this section we address a few of the most urgent topics; the changing nature of Utah lands, forest health, rangeland health, and the management of threatened species. All of these topic areas are influenced by drought, which makes their management more complex, more difficult, and more uncertain.
Land-Use Changes in Developed Areas
Urban development is increasing and resulting in the loss of agricultural and natural landscapes.
As Utah’s population has increased by over 40% over the past 20 years, developed areas have increased by 6% (92,846 acres) in the six most developed counties in Utah – Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Weber, Washington, and Cache. At the same time, these counties have lost 4% (47,883 acres) of their agricultural land and 3% (39,447 acres) of their forest / rangeland (Fig. 1). Of the land that was developed over the past 20 years, 52% was once agricultural and 42% was once forest / rangeland (Fig. 2). These losses are concerning for a state that has historically been grounded in the reliance and commitment to agriculture. Agriculture in Utah remains unusually diverse with significant production of high value horticultural crops, field crops, and forages, as well as beef, dairy and poultry sectors. Ninety-five percent of berries, 93% of orchards and 85% of Utah’s vegetable production is concentrated along the Wasatch Front and in Cache Valley. Additionally, Utahns remain deeply connected to their agricultural heritage, with recent surveys suggesting that asmany as 98% of Utahns value agriculture and would like to see increased local production of food.
Current growth trends are projected to continue, accelerate, and will have profound impacts on the state. Impacts of development include decreasing air quality, decreasing water quality, and loss of animal habitat. Further research into specific trends, drivers of these patterns, and potential strategies to align development with citizen goals is needed to better address future challenges.
Shown is the percentage for each type of developable land within the six most developed counties in Utah — Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Weber, Washington, and Cache.
Percentage of three different land use types converted to development over the past 20 years.
Data: National Land Cover Database, 2021.
Long-term drought is a reality we have to come to terms with in the West.
Over the past twenty years, much of the land area of Utah has been in drought (Fig. 3), with some episodes of “extreme drought”—drought that is more severe than the recent historical record. However, over centennial and millennial timescales, long and severe periods of drought have affected the Southwest. The dry period that peaked in the 12th century, when southwest temperatures were roughly equivalent to today’s, shows that drought has been worse in the past than we have experienced recently³. Drought as experienced by plants (an ecological foundation on which we all depend) arises from a combination of higher temperatures and lower precipitation. Although precipitation trends in Utah are variable and may bounce back in future years, all projections show continued increasing temperatures for Utah. Drought decreases the vitality of forests and rangelands and increases the chances of larger and higher-severity wildfires.
Continued research into the specific climate projections for Utah is needed. Projections of future climate for Utah may be different than those of the United States as a whole, and will certainly differ from global averages. It may be prudent for future land management decisions to consider the possibility for continued levels of drought, as we have experienced it for the past two decades. It may also be prudent to consider a lower probability of very extreme drought.
Portions of Utah in drought categories from 2000-2021. White areas indicates non-drought.
Data: National Drought Migration Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln 2021.
Forest Health and Changes in Forest Vegetation
In addition to the constant presence of wildfire, Utah forests face threats from the combined effects of pathogens and insects.
Forests of the future may look different than today; increasing drought means that these lands will be able to support fewer trees. Emerging threats, such as introduced insects like the balsam wooly adelgid4 (attacks subalpine fir) and the emerald ash borer (attacks ash trees), could rapidly kill trees and create changes across landscapes. Invasive tamarisk and Russian olive have changed riparian forests, and the expansion of the native pinyon-juniper woodlands make it harder for other native rangeland plants to establish and survive. Managing forests under these difficult conditions requires an understanding of the nuanced relationships under droughtier conditions between plants, soils, and soil-dwelling organisms⁵—many of which are currently unknown.
Utah forests are unique; tree species, often-slower growth rates, and patterns for post-fire recovery make some straightforward techniques used in other places less directly applicable to Utah lands. Managers need to use more prescribed fires, intentionally managed fires, and thinning to maintain forest health6. Wildfire risks can often be reduced through the retention of large trees⁷ and fire-resistant species. Forest treatments require time to show effectiveness on arid lands. Because optimal future conditions on a changing landscape will almost certainly be different from the past⁸, new techniques, adaptive management, and ongoing monitoring is important.
Severe drought has decreased forage on rangelands, allowed the spread of invasive annual grasses, raised the risk of wildfire, and exacerbated problems with wild horse and burro populations⁹.
Utah experienced severe and exceptional drought in 2021, especially during the early growing season, which resulted in reduced forage for wildlife and livestock. The loss of forage from drought can have long-lasting economic and ecological consequences. It’s estimated that wildlife viewing and hunting on BLM lands contributes 840 jobs, generates $31 million in salaries and wages and $103 million in sales to Utah’s economy¹⁰. Livestock production generated $378 million in 2020 — a large portion of that forage comes from Utah rangelands¹¹. Recent rains helped to moderate drought impacts later in the year (Fig. 4), but ongoing impacts will continue to affect stocking rates and the health of wildlife, especially considering the burden of wild horse and burro populations. Cheatgrass, an annual invasive grass, has also increased over the last several decades, especially across sagebrush rangelands in Utah. Annual grasses increase the risk of wildfires in sagebrush rangelands by displacing native vegetation⁹.
Unmanaged wild horse and burro populations are likely causing degradation in several Utah counties. As range conditions decline with drought, there is less forage and wildlife habitat available in areas with wild horses and burro problems¹². If the drought becomes more frequent or intense, managers may also need to moderate livestock stocking rates to ensure the ongoing sustainability of grazing lands for all grazing animals. Worsening drought could increase the spread of invasive annual grasses, creating greater risk for wildfire cycles. Recent research shows that management actions like seeding and strategic grazing following fires can limit the spread of annual grasses¹³.
Daily forage production for Utah in 2021 in relationship to long-term averages.— 2010-2018
Data: Rangelands app / production-explorer.
Average annual grass cover across Utah from 1984-2020. The dotted line is a linear trendline showing an increasing annual grass cover over time. — 2021
Data: Rangelands app.
Land Stewardship Programs
Land stewardship programs focused on ecosystem restoration have facilitated new public and private partnerships essential to recovery by preserving and restoring important wildlife habitats.
Utah uses public-private land stewardship partnerships to protect and improve land conditions for threatened and endangered species. These partnerships involve conservation of water, wildlife, forests, rangeland, and the species themselves, and have minimized the effects of invasive species and development (Table 1). As of 2021, the Utah Department of Natural Resources Watershed Restoration Initiative has secured $310.7 million in partnership funding and more than $34.7 million in in-kind support to complete 2,431 projects on over 2 million acres of land.
Partnerships and stewardship agreements are working in Utah to help manage resources and avoid potentially onerous regulations.
|Landscape Stewardship||Lead Agency||Program Focus|
|Utah Watershed Restoration Program||Utah Department of Natural Resources||Watershed project planning, implementation, and coordination.|
|Conservation Districts||Utah Department of Agriculture and Food||Locally-driven water, soil, and land management.|
|Coordinated Research Management Groups||Society for Range Management, Natural Resources Conservation Services, and CDs||Voluntary natural resource planning process to enhance resource management and resolve resource issues.|
|Cooperative Weed Management Areas||Counties, Utah Weed Control Association||Secures government funding to control weeds across jurisdiction boundaries.|
|Utah Community-Based Conservation Program||Utah State University Extension||Coordinates among 10 community-based adaptive resources management groups to manage sage-grouse, wildlife, and economic sustainability.|
|Partners for Fish and Wildlife||U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service||Implements custom designed wildlife habitat restoration projects.|
|Sage-grouse Initiative||Natural Resources Conservation Services||Science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to conserve western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.|
|Utah Grazing Improvement Program||Utah Department of Agriculture and Food||Improves rangeland and watershed health through grazing management.|
|Utah State University Extension Programs||Utah State University Extension||Science-driven water quality, range, wildlife, forestry, recreation, and wildlife damage management.|
|Utah Forest Stewarship Programs||Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands USFS||Education, techincal assistance, and support for long-term management of nonindustrial private forest lands.|
|Summit Land Conservancy||Nonprofit land trust||Saving open spaces of Park City and the Wasatch Back. Defend 42 conservation easements on 6,992 acres of land.|
|Utah Open Lands||Nonprofit land trust||Voluntary preservation of open spaces, family farms, recreation, historic, and scenic areas.|
|Agriculture Land Preservation||Utah Department of Agriculture and Food||Raise awareness of protecting farmland, wetlands, and open space.|
|TNC of Utah||The Nature Conservancy||Since 1984 has helped to protect more than 1 million acres in Utah.|
Private land remains a key component of sustaining healthy landscapes for humans and wildlife in Utah. Multiple organizations and agencies have developed voluntary land steward programs tailored to meet local needs. These land stewardship partners collectively provide technical assistance to landowners throughout Utah. — 2021
Data: Lorien Belton & Terry Messmer.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR UTAH’S LAND
The land resources of Utah are facing a myriad of challenges, but we can adapt to these changes through concerted and coordinated management. However, land management methods that have worked in the past and which are in use today are likely to become less effective in the future. Utah needs to forge a path — through science, management, and government action — that works specifically for the land types, ownerships, and vegetation of Utah. To respond to changing conditions, managers should consider a variety of
approaches and recognize that different solutions will be needed in different parts of the state. Multiple approaches will be needed, and should be tried; some will work better than others. Utah should adopt a strong emphasis on monitoring change to relatively unmanaged lands as well as monitoring the long-term effects of policy actions in the context of variable climate and changing human land use. Success in optimizing Utah’s land resources will need long periods of time to assess, whatever actions are taken.