BLM Utah Fire takes flight for conservation: A Dingell Act success story

Blake Johnson, Public Affairs Specialist - Fire

Across the landscapes of Utah, where the natural beauty of the land is as vast as it is diverse, a remarkable initiative is taking flight. A BLM Utah team is working with the state of Utah to inventory lands that can be exchanged under the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act. This transformative law provides new opportunities for land exchanges that benefit the federal government, state of Utah, and public land users. To meet this need, BLM Utah Fire staff have taken an ingenious approach to accomplish the mission, demonstrating the power of collaboration and innovation in land management.

Passed in 2019, the Dingell Act is an impressive piece of legislation that aims to protect public lands and wildlife habitats while also ensuring responsible land use for economic development. A key provision allows land exchanges between the federal government and states, simplifying what would otherwise appear as a checkerboard map of land managed by various land management agencies. This creates contiguous land parcels, easing management for all parties involved and benefiting both conservation and local communities.

Above is a picture that shows before and after the land exchanges as part of the Dingell Act.
Above is a picture that shows the before and after of some parcels to be exchanged as part of the Dingell Act. The yellow designates BLM Utah-managed lands and gray designates lands managed by the state of Utah.

The state of Utah and the BLM are collaborating to identify lands for exchange, including 300 parcels of 640 acres each in the remote and rugged BLM Utah Green River District. Many of these parcels are within the newly designated wilderness and have no adjacent roads. To streamline the inventory process for these hard-to-reach areas, BLM Utah Fire engaged its aviation program to conduct surveys by helicopter.

Three wildland firefighters in a helicopter smiling and giving thumbs up to the camera.
BLM Utah staff prepare to inventory the lands. From left to right: Outdoor Recreation Planner Jaydon Mead, Range Manager Jason Carlie, and Outdoor Recreation Planner David (Blake) Baker.

The advantages of using aviation for the inventory process are numerous. First, it expedites the land exchange process, as we can inventory the lands much faster via aviation as opposed to ground transport. It also reduces the environmental impact of on-the-ground surveys and significantly lowers costs, freeing up resources for conservation efforts.

Although this inventory process may seem straightforward, it involves substantial teamwork and careful planning across multiple departments, including realty, GIS, contracting, and the fire aviation program. This cross-departmental collaboration makes this task a significant endeavor.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) upholds legal requirements for these inventories, which demands conducting a thorough assessment of elements such as roads, transmission lines, old mining facilities, and other structures on the land. Given the unprecedented nature of conducting these inventories by aircraft, the BLM had to work closely with the DOJ to gain approval for this ambitious initiative.

Securing both the helicopter and its crew presented an extra challenge. This effort coincided with the conclusion of the core fire season, typically when contracted helicopters and pilots would be released. To secure the helicopter during this period, the fire staff had to negotiate an extension of the aviation service contract. Moreover, the land inventory personnel, who lacked experience with helicopter operations, underwent a series of training sessions to be qualified to fly. Lastly, as with every flight, an extensive safety plan had to be generated.

This innovative approach enabled the BLM to swiftly and efficiently inventory 152 parcels, covering a total of 97,280 acres, all completed within a remarkable 21-hour timeframe. The BLM Utah Fire team's strategic choice of a faster helicopter played a pivotal role in accomplishing this survey in half the originally planned time and at a reduced budget.

A helicopter flying over ground with clear blue skies.
BLM Utah staff make their way to inventory potential land exchange parcels.

However, what truly stands out is the unwavering commitment to collaboration and responsible stewardship. While outsiders might perceive the fire program as primarily reactive, focused on firefighting and standby readiness, stories like this one demonstrate a broader perspective. The BLM Utah Fire Program actively engages in a shared mission to safeguard the nation's natural resources, showcasing a proactive and responsible approach.

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