Utah asks for exemption from Forest Service roadless rule

For two decades, the rule has protected nearly four million acres in Utah.

 

Boulder Mountain in Dixie National Forest, Utah is one of the areas that would lose roadless rule protections under a proposed petition.

No roads run through “Wayne Wonderland,” a red-rock maze of deep canyons, monoliths and stark buttes in south-central Utah’s Fishlake National Forest. The same holds for sections of the high alpine lakes, aspen and pine forests, and snowy peaks of the High Uintas mountains. This is thanks to the U.S. Forest Service’s two-decade old roadless rule, which bans construction and logging on nearly 60 million national forest acres across the country, including some of Utah’s most remote and rugged areas. Conservationists regard the roadless rule as a landmark piece of environmental policy, preserving what remains of the agency’s relatively undeveloped land.

But the state of Utah has always disliked the rule, and now it wants out. In a petition to the Department of Agriculture released in early March, Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert’s administration requested a new roadless rule that would weaken restrictions on logging and road building on more than 4 million acres of national forest in the state. The roadless rule changes would vary according to county preferences, which are included in the petition.

According to Herbert’s administration, the roadless rule puts Utah at greater risk for wildfire by preventing the removal of dead trees and thick plant growth built up over many years. The state began assembling the petition last fall, following one of Utah’s worst wildfire seasons in years, during which hundreds of thousands of acres and dozens of homes burned. But an analysis by The Wilderness Society shows that 90 percent of Utah land that burned from 2013 to 2017 was outside the roadless rule areas, and scientific evidence suggests that road-building in Western forests is associated with high risk of human-caused fires. And as noted by Mark Brunson, environment professor at Utah State University, the petition ignores wildfire’s ecological role in restoring nutrients to the soil and promoting healthy ecosystems.

Areas in Utah where roadless rule protections will remain, be reduced or be eliminated entirely.
Source: Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office

Conservation groups argue that the state has an ulterior motive for its petition: to undercut federal oversight of public land. Over the past few decades, Utah has emerged as one of the most visible and zealous opponents of federal land management. Shortly after President Donald Trump’s election, Herbert’s administration sent his transition team a document, obtained by Pacific Standard last year, detailing a veritable Christmas list of land-transfer policies, including an overhaul of the Antiquities Act of 1906 and the National Environmental Policy Act. Several of Utah’s requests, including reductions in size to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, have already been fulfilled. Also included in the document was the complete elimination of the roadless rule and a directive to “reinstate timber production on federal land” that had been previously prohibited by it.

With its arid climate and slow-growing trees, Utah lacks a vibrant logging industry. “There are no industrial forestlands or big sawmill companies operating in Utah,” said Darren McAvoy, a Utah State University professor in the wildlands resources department. But that doesn’t matter to the Herbert administration, said Tim Petersen, cultural landscapes program director for the Grand Canyon Trust, who called the petition an ideological move, a part of the larger political project to increase state control of federal land.

Utah boasts a long history of subverting federal public-land policy, predating the current administration and Cliven Bundy’s 2014 armed standoff over grazing on federal land. Four decades ago, Utah farmers and ranchers figured prominently in the Sagebrush Rebellion movement to transfer public lands to state and private control, and since then, local and state activists have joined natural resource industries in fighting federal oversight. The roadless rule petition fits into the Trump administration’s recent trend of giving states greater land management authority, rather than engaging in outright land-transfer efforts. Public-lands advocates say the result is effectively the same.

“This is another in the step for state and county control over public lands,” Petersen said. “They’ve been pretty direct about that.”

Note: This article has been updated to reflect that the roadless rule protection applies to Fishlake National Forest, not Capitol Reef National Park.

Nick Bowlin is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • FEATURES DIRECTOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Features Director to join our editorial...
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OWN A THRIVING MOUNTAIN GUIDE SERVICE.
    Eastern Sierra guide service for sale to person with vision & expertise to take it onwards. Since 1995 with USFS & NPS permits. Ideal for...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...