Utah burn ban ignites outrage over ‘basic freedoms’

The right to burn versus the right to breathe.

 

Over 500 people showed up at the historic Cache County courthouse in Logan, Utah, Jan. 21 for a public hearing organized by the state’s Division of Air Quality (DAQ). They tried to squeeze in to a courtroom with a capacity of 160. A line formed out the courtroom doors, down the hallway, outside, and into a parking lot, where on a flatbed truck, wood-burning stoves sat on display, a warm orange glow flickering through their glass doors. This was as good a spot as any for residents to warm up while waiting for their turn to give comments on a proposed seasonal wood burning ban in the county.

The ban would prohibit the use of solid fuel burning devices for over four months every winter in seven northern Utah counties. The Utah DAQ is accepting comments through Feb. 9 and plans to make a decision or revise the rule before the beginning of the 2015/2016 winter inversion season.

Salt Lake City suffers smoggy conditions, particularly under a winter inversion layer, which traps particulates close to the ground. Courtesy Flickr user mateoutah.

The folks who brought the stoves to the tailgate were part of a recently formed coalition called “Utahns for Responsible Burning.” With backing from the fireplace industry, they want to exempt Environmental Protection Agency-certified, low-emissions stoves from the proposed ban. They see this exemption as a “common-sense solution” that will result in cleaner air and “preserve basic freedoms.” 

Utahns for Responsible Burning are not an unruly bunch, but it’s this second focus of their mission -- to preserve basic freedoms -- that attracted the large crowd of concerned citizens to the meeting. They created a slick website with pre-written comments for the DAQ that users could submit with one click and made sure the word got out about the seven public hearings. “This is not about wood burning,” said one resident going on the record to oppose the ban. “This is about rights.”

If it passes as proposed this would be the strictest wood burning ban in the nation. To combat exceptionally high levels of particle pollution that form during winter inversions, Utah Governor Gary Herbert proposed the ban and tasked the DAQ with probing public opinion. Several northern Utah counties are out of compliance with federal air quality standards. Study after study has linked these pollution episodes to serious health problems, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease, stroke and early death. 

The Utah Division of Air Quality already bans wood burning on so-called “red-air days,” when pollution levels exceed federal standards, but DAQ Director Bryce Bird says they still find wood smoke particles on their detection filters on these days, so there is clearly a problem with enforcement. An all-out ban seems a simple solution to curb these emissions. 

Bird has already worked to assure the public, via a local call-in radio show, saying the DAQ would be reviewing each and every comment. His personal opinion is that it’s unlikely that the state will finalize the proposed rule as-is after considering the public feedback. “The result will be rule-making action informed by public opinion,” he said. But it’s hard to imagine a satisfying rule informed by the opinions of an angry mob, the fireplace industry, clean air activists, and citizens who value their self-reliance above all else.

At the Cache County hearing, only two residents voiced their support for the ban. One, an older woman with lung cancer, was booed by the crowd when she said that the ban would ease some of the suffering of her disease. A man who said his wife’s and son’s asthma had worsened since moving to Logan was jeered and told to get rid of his car and “ride a horse” or and move his family out of the valley. 

There will be public hearings in each of the seven affected counties during the 40-day comment period. Five of the seven have already taken place. They’ve been like the Cache County hearing -- with overwhelming opposition and anti-government rhetoric. Many residents believe that the decision to ban wood burning has already been made without regard to their opinions. “We already know you’re going to implement the ban,” said one Cache County resident, “so you should know right now that we’re not going to comply.”

Jennifer Pemberton reports on community and the environment for Utah Public Radio. She writes about the West from her home in Logan, Utah. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.