Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber, presented a bill Monday recognizing in state statute man as a cause of climate change and asking state fire officials to be allowed to recognize that fact in preparing against wildfires. The debate spread from fire to science to politics and even, somehow, terrorism.
House Bill 77, if it had passed, would have written into Utah law the phrase “climate change” for the first time in state history. While the bill drew out plenty of public support, it also drew plenty of skepticism from the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, which ultimately killed the bill.
Powell’s bill would have recognized climate change as a man-made phenomenon and he says have would have allow the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands to study and enact policy acknowledging climate change in their efforts to combat wildfires in the state -- though the agency would later dispute that claim.
Powell argued that the bill did not require them to do so but opened the door for the agency to look at different ways of mitigating devastating forest fires in the state. He also did not shirk from the controversial subject. “As a Republican I believe our physical climate and our political climate are slowly, but surely, changing,” Powell told the committee.
Powell was flanked by constituents who helped him present the bill including Doctor Mitchell Power of Heber City, who has studied fires for the past 20 years and believes that climate change has led to longer fire seasons and larger wildfires.
“In 2012, we had 1,453 wildfires in Utah,” Power said. “That’s [the same] as if you took the area of Utah Lake and burned it five times over.”
His testimony, as well as that of others, may have fallen on deaf ears, however. Susan Soleil, a resident of Midway, spoke of “listening with an open mind” to the debate -- but during her testimony, one lawmaker on the committee stared at his laptop with headphones in his ears.
Logan Froerer, an activist, asked the committee to pass the bill out to encourage more dialogue so that youth like him could feel more connected to the political process. Others made impassioned pleas asking the committee to do something to help future generations.
But committee members had their doubts. Rep. Doug Sagers, R-Tooele, was impressed with Power’s decades of study but argued climate change happens “over millennia, not decades.” Committee chair Mike Noel, R-Kanab, questioned the idea of rising temperatures since January was such a cold month, drawing groans from the crowd.
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, surprised almost everyone in attendance by agreeing something should be done now and not later in the issue. He cited wildfires as being primarily on federally controlled public lands. He also argued that these lands are potential targets of Al Qaida terrorists who might want to set them on fire. To that end, he proposed gutting the bill and its references to climate change and rewriting it to allow the state to make long-term fire planning in response to “federal mismanagement” of public lands -- the amendment failed amidst laughter of disbelief from those of the public at the hearing.
But, the ultimate factor defeating the bill was likely from the testimony of Dick Buehler, the director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. While Powell had heard people in Buehler’s agency express concern that they couldn’t study climate-change-related mitigation plans without legislative approval, Buehler disagreed. Not only did he say that they already had that authority but that the bill would not enhance his division’s ability to do future planning on preventing wildfires in the state whether the Legislature decided climate change was a factor or not. With that, the bill was soon shot down by an 11-4 vote.
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