Greens miffed at governor's plan
A federal judge last month tossed out a Bush administration policy that reopened more than 58 million acres of roadless forest closed off under President Clinton.
Despite the ruling, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. plans to submit a roadless forest petition to the Department of Agriculture next month, as requested. And the petition will be notable, because it will, in all likelihood, lack any specific request to protect the state's roadless forest areas - which comprise roughly half of Utah's 8 million acres of national forest lands.
A draft synopsis of Utah's petition, released by the state's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, calls on the Forest Service to undertake "active" management of all Utah forest lands not under wilderness area protection to address wildfire, vegetation, wildlife, livestock, recreation and land-ownership issues.
The state petition also requests that "all previous inventories of roadless, or unroaded lands in the national forests be obsolete, moot and of no further legal effect." And it calls on the Forest Service to establish advisory committees comprised of state and local government officials "to advise the Forest Supervisor on an ongoing basis about the management of these areas."
Environmentalists call the petition draft outrageous.
"This isn't about roadless areas. It's a sagebrush rebellion petition," said Dick Carter of the High Uintas Preservation Council.
"It's a pathetic statement that this state and this governor, surrounded by all we have, are still stuck in this kind of right-wing ideology, when all the other states are talking about the real issues that have to be addressed," he said.
But Lynn Stevens, director of the state's Public Lands Policy Coordination office, argues that such an approach puts a premium on forest management flexibility.
"The essence of our petition is about balancing uses," Stevens said. "There will continue to be places [in Utah] where roads will never be appropriate or needed. But to say there can never be a road is unnecessarily restrictive and also unneeded."
But just how the petition process will now play out is open to question. A Sept. 20 ruling by U.S. District Judge Elizabeth LaPorte declared that the Bush policy failed to include adequate environmental reviews.
In the wake of that decision, the Department of Agriculture has advised states to follow through with the petition process because of a likely challenge to the LaPorte ruling. As a further hedge, Stevens says the administration has also recommended states file their petitions under the Administrative Procedures Act - which allows any group or individual to petition the federal government about any rule.
The roadless forest petitions were included in the Bush policy as a way to give governors input into the forest management process. But several governors have chafed at the new rules because of the costs associated with conducting their own roadless area analysis.
But most states are also following through with their petitions. Some, such as California and Colorado, will ask that most, if not all of their inventoried roadless areas remain protected. Utah's roadless proposal most closely resembles Idaho's, which has already submitted a petition that asks for most of that state's 9 million acres of roadless area be opened up for multiple use management.
Even if the Bush roadless petition process moves forward, one Forest Service watchdog doubts Utah's proposal will survive in its current form.
"This won't go anywhere," predicted Kevin Mueller, executive director of the Utah Environmental Congress. "What the state wants to do is stack these proposed advisory boards with county commissioners to advise the local forest supervisor how to proceed with active management of the forest. It's a reach from the far right in rural Utah to get past this idea of nationally owned forest lands.
"But it could also," he said, "set the stage for a legal challenge of the [Clinton] roadless policy."
State petitions are due at the Department of Agriculture by Nov. 13.