Thinning forests will not save Great Salt Lake

The idea of thinning forests to save the Great Salt Lake has again been proposed by GOP Salt Lake County Council member Dea Theodore. This idea is met with skepticism by scientists and environmental organizations, who have research and examples to back their skepticism. 

Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, and the John Muir Project have criticized thinning in U.S. forests in general, referring to it as “massive malpractice” and urging Utah residents to reject the efforts to log or thin forests.

Forest thinning is a thinly veiled hand out to the timber industry.

This proposal is only a new rationale for an even more aggressive version of a misguided strategy that the USFS has already been engaged in for several years, but much more earnestly in the last two; “thinning” national forests under the guise of suppressing high intensity wildfires. Research funded by non-USFS, non-timber industry sources indicates that strategy is deeply flawed, and both the USFS and Utah’s “chain saw caucus” are ignoring the role of forests on environmental dynamics on a much broader scale. In fact, what the USFS is doing as official policy is unquestionably malpractice for the climate, public health, the broader terrestrial water cycle of the West, and for mitigation/control of intense wildfires and forest health. It is also largely ineffective in protecting forest homes from wildfire.

The assertion made by Theodore that vegetation management will result in quantifiable extra water is disputed by scientists. The Great Salt Lake Strike Team Report released by the Kem Gardner Institute of Policy states that the impact of tree thinning on the lake or its tributaries is unclear and may even decrease flows. The report emphasizes that the relationship between canopy reduction and streamflow is complex, with varying results shown in different studies.

Furthermore, the proposal overlooks other conservation efforts aimed at managing water in the midst of Utah’s drought. By focusing solely on tree thinning, Theodore’s approach disregards the importance of comprehensive water conservation strategies. Promoting a myopic approach sends the wrong message and fails to address the broader issues at hand.

The actual impact of thinning on water availability depends on various factors, including topography and environmental conditions. The ongoing study of conifer removal projects in Utah aims to assess if such initiatives result in higher groundwater tables and increased spring or stream flows. However, preliminary analysis suggests that any hydrological benefits would likely be localized and not contribute to significant extra water for the Great Salt Lake.

Read the Deseret News article here.