Gov. Herbert seeks relief from roadless protections on Utah’s forests; environmentalists fear unleashed logging

(Courtesy photo | Grand Canyon Trust) The Wayne Wonderland in Fishlake National Forest is among 4.2 million acres of roadless areas in Utah. Gov. Gary Herbert is asking the U.S. Forest Service to relax protections on much of these timbered lands.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has submitted his highly anticipated petition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture seeking a rollback of restrictions on road building and logging on much of the state’s 4.2 million acres of national forest that are protected under the 2001 Roadless Rule.

The governor’s staff framed the proposal, stitched together from requests filed by all Utah counties, as simple adjustments that would provide the U.S. Forest Service flexibility to better manage overgrown, beetle-damaged timber lands.

Numerous environmental groups promptly attacked Herbert’s petition as a Trojan horse, packed with bulldozers, ATVs and chainsaws that would be unleashed like Greek swordsmen into Utah’s uncut forests.

The petition blames deteriorating forest conditions on roadless protections, alleging they thwart projects that would restore resilience and ecological heath. The solution is a “Utah-specific” rule that would allow some road building to accommodate thinning and the removal of fire-stoking fuels.

“The implementation of a Utah-specific Roadless Rule would, if utilized correctly and with sufficient funding, lead to healthier, more resilient forests through the use of landscape-scale forest management activities,” the petition states. “A state-specific Roadless Rule should enhance the Forest Service’s efforts to reduce hazardous fuel loads and dead or dying trees that contribute to the risk of unwanted wildfires.”

Utah's proposed Roadless Rule revisions Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is seeking to relax protections on much of the state's 4 million acres of national forest inventoried as roadless. Changes are needed to enable better management, state officials say, but environmentalists say the changes are not needed and would invite destructive logging in pristine forests.

The governor’s proposed revisions could accomplish the opposite of what state officials claim to seek, according to Tim Peterson, cultural landscapes program director for the Grand Canyon Trust.

“Utah is seeking exemptions from the Roadless Rule to allow new road building and logging under the guise of reducing wildfire risk, despite the fact that risk is best mitigated near homes and communities, not by building new roads and logging our far-flung backcountry,” Peterson said. “Utah's attempt to weaken the Roadless Rule just won't solve the problems the state claims to want to solve.”

The Wilderness Society contends roadless areas reduce the risks associated with wildfire. An analysis conducted by the group found 90 percent of the Utah land that burned from 2013 to 2017 was outside roadless areas.

“A Utah-specific rule is a solution looking for a problem," said Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, “and another sorry example in Utah’s love affair of building unnecessary roads for the sake of roads, at the expense of the ecological and recreational values of some of the most valuable and vulnerable landscapes in the state.”

The governor’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office previously called for revoking the Roadless Rule and resuming timber production in a confidential memo drafted in 2016 titled “Policy Objectives for Federal Land Management" and aimed at achieving “balanced management.”

This same office compiled the new roadless petition, which describes timber cutting merely as a means of restoring wildlife habitat and forest health.

Environmentalists suspect logging is the petition’s real goal.

“The state has made it clear they intend to allow logging and drilling for oil and gas inside Utah’s last remaining pristine forest watersheds and outstanding wildlife habitat,” said Ken Rait, the Pew Charitable Trust’s public lands program director. He contends the petition fulfills the extraction-heavy goals spelled out in the 2016 memo.

“The petition is not grounded in science," Rait said, "which provides more than ample basis for Agriculture Secretary [Sonny] Perdue to reject [it].”

The Utah petition initiates a lengthy review that includes an environmental impact statement followed by a rule-making process before its proposals would be implemented by the Forest Service.

It seeks varying drawdowns of roadless protections in most of the state’s 4.2 million roadless acres. Pursuant to requests by 12 counties, the petition calls for leaving protections in place in certain areas, including Dixie National Forest’s Pine View Mountains and Paunsaugunt and Sevier plateaus, parts of Manti-Sa Lal National Forest’s San Juan Mountains and Bear Ears National Monument, and Fishlake National Forest’s Thousand Mountain area east of Loa.

Grand and Salt Lake counties ask that existing roadless protections remain for the La Sal and Wasatch mountains, respectively. Garfield and Wayne counties want roadless protections struck entirely from the Aquarius Plateau and Boulder Mountain, aspen-swaddled highlands straddling the county line north of Escalante.

The petition asks that roadless safeguards remain in place in the eastern part of the Uinta Mountains, in Summit and Duchesne counties, but be modified everywhere else on Utah’s biggest mountain range that is outside the High Uintas Wilderness Area.

Weber County seeks the preservation of roadless protection in its end of the Wasatch Mountains, including the lands outside North Ogden proposed for a massive ski area expansion with a gondola over the range to Nordic Valley’s existing base.