On Feb. 28 the State of Utah petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Forest Service to develop a state-based rule managing four million acres of roadless areas on national forest lands within the state.
Hunters and anglers say the move could weaken conservation efforts in prime hunting and fishing habitats, according to a statement from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
Other groups, such as Backcountry Horsemen of America, are also airing concerns.
In Utah, backcountry areas that are not fragmented by roads are currently conserved under the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which was created through years of stakeholder engagement.
“For nearly two decades, the roadless rule has successfully conserved some of the finest hunting and fishing destinations in Utah and across the nation,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the TRCP. “It is unnecessary and counterproductive to abandon this tried-and-true policy and go back to the drawing board. Doing so will only drain the time and resources of public agencies already stretched thin.”
He said prime habitats from the Wasatch and Uinta mountains to the La Sals could be affected by this rule-making process.
Another organization, Western Resource Advocates, said the petition “undermines decades of common-sense public land protections,” and would increase wildfire risk, threaten drinking water, “and cost Utahns millions of dollars.”
Officials with WRA said, “If Utah’s petition to replace the national Roadless Rule with a Utah-specific regulation is approved, Utahns could face numerous safety, health, environmental, and economic consequences, including increased wildfire risk, declining water quality, degraded wildlife habitat and, according to the U.S. Forest Service, more than $6.6 million in costs to Utah taxpayers.
“Contrary to claims made by the State of Utah, building roads into un-roaded forest areas will increase fire risk and end up costing Utah taxpayers millions of dollars,” said Joro Walker, WRA’s general counsel in Utah. “Governor Herbert’s request to roll back the Roadless Rule puts our communities, our drinking water, and Utah’s unmatched public lands and wildlife at risk. The petition is also unnecessary, as the current rules already provide our state with the flexibility we need to properly manage our forests.
“If our state’s goal is to protect people and property from wildfires, our resources would be better spent if we concentrate efforts on the wildland-urban interface, rather than remote roadless areas,” added Walker. “We urge the Forest Service to reject the state’s petition and uphold this common-sense measure that has protected Utah’s forests for nearly two decades.”
Adopted in 2001 after the most extensive public involvement process in history, the Roadless Rule, the WRA says the policy “prevents costly road building and large-scale industrial logging in remote areas on National Forests. This conserves clean water, protects recreation opportunities, and promotes wildlife values on America’s national forests. In Utah, the Roadless Rule insulates nearby National Parks, provides unmatched recreational and tourism opportunities, and provides wildlife habitat that supports hunting, fishing, as well as many threatened, endangered, and sensitive species.”
The Forest Service may issue a decision to grant or deny Utah’s petition by June 2020. The agency will begin taking public comment on the proposal as early as May 2019 as it begins to review the environmental impacts of the proposal.
Officials from The Wilderness Society and Backcountry Horsemen of America say the U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Perdue should reject petition.
“Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s efforts to drive commercial logging trucks through forests that contain drinking water for millions of residents and serve as primary recreation spots for hikers, bikers and horse people puts in jeopardy Utah’s public health and outdoor recreation economy,” said a statement from TWS and BCHA.
“Rather than pointing to any science-based reasoning, the Herbert administration has for months been spreading fear to justify the unravelling of protections on four million acres of Utah’s public lands, which have for 20 years preserved places such as Cottonwood Canyons and the Wasatch Crest Trail near Salt Lake City, and parts of The Whole Enchilada mountain bike trail near Moab.
“As horse users who frequent Utah’s national forests, we appreciate not only the panoramic splendor of these roadless landscapes, but also their contributions to the watersheds that provide all Utahns with water,” said Wayne Ludington, chairman of Back Country Horseman of Utah. “These special places belong to all of us whether we ride horses, hike, fish, or just enjoy knowing that such treasured places exist. We cannot let those who would push roads into these irreplaceable landscapes–for their own economic gain–win. We must protect these special places for all Americans.”
The conservation groups saay that some protections would be eliminated entirely based on country recommendations, while a few public lands in and around Salt Lake County would be protected according to the existing rule, also per county recommendations.
The vast majority of these areas will be opened up to commercial logging, road construction and other activities that fundamentally eliminates the current values of these lands, according to estimates put forth by the conservation organizations.
“The petition relies on the false notion of temporary roads and ignores the reality that they become permanent features on the landscape,” said TWS and BCHA. It “misconstrues the condition of Utah’s roadless areas with statements that are in direct conflict with current scientific understanding.
For months, the state has failed to adequately engage the public in a rushed effort to strip protections from these public lands under the guise of wildfire mitigation. The reality is Governor Herbert wants to revoke the Roadless Rule entirely to reinstate timber production on protected national forest lands.
Said Paul Spitler, Utah roadless campaign director of The Wilderness Society, “These remote forests pose a far lower threat to communities than forested areas in and around people’s homes. Protecting communities from wildfire should be the No. 1 priority—not short-sighted schemes to build more roads into remote forested areas. By diverting resources away from people’s homes and communities, this proposal would make Utahns less safe from fire. We urge the governor to reconsider.”