The federal Forest Service strikes a stewardship deal with Utah. Here’s what it will do.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue talk in the Capitol rotunda following a group photo after signing a "shared stewardship" agreement regarding the management of Utah's national forests at the Utah Capitol on Wed. May 22, 2019.

Utah forestry officials and rural leaders can expect greater influence over critical decisions involving the management of the state’s 8 million acres of national forest, thanks to an agreement Gov. Gary Herbert and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue signed Wednesday.

The deal obligates the U.S. Forest Service to rely on the state’s guidance for designing, implementing, and prioritizing projects geared toward reducing the risks of damaging wildfires and promoting forest health.

“What we’re talking about with shared stewardship is one plus one equals more than two working together,” Perdue said before the signing, attended by top Forest Service officials and Utah lawmakers, county commissioners and agency heads.

“State authorities have more nimbleness,” the former Georgia governor added. “They’ve got more boots on the ground here that they can operate with. Join those assets with the assets of the U.S. Forest Service and the resources of the federal government coming together to work together as good neighbors — not just in name only but in shared stewardship of the land making healthier forests for all the multiple benefits and local uses that we talk about.”

The accord establishes a framework that enables the state to “work collaboratively with the Forest Service to accomplish mutual goals” and respond to growing challenges on national forests afflicted by years of drought, a warming climate, spreading beetle infestations that are killing trees and an historic legacy of fire suppression that has left many areas overgrown, choked with deadfall and primed for “catastrophic wildfires."

Utah officials expect the agreement to build on existing programs and investments in restoring degraded forest landscapes.

“I appreciate the fact that under Secretary Perdue and his team and under the Trump administration that we are now seeing a lot of collaboration, a willingness to listen and understand and discuss and hopefully come up with better solutions based on just kind of common sense,” Herbert said. “This doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, a partisan issue.”

The Forest Service has already prepared and authorized treatment plans on nearly 1 million acres of national forest in Utah, using both mechanical thinning and prescribed fire, according to Dave Whittekiend, supervisor of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. However, fire suppression costs associated with increasingly severe wildfire seasons have so depleted Forest Service budgets that there is little money left to conduct these costly projects, which don’t typically yield much wood that could be turned into marketable goods.

Utah lawmakers last general session appropriated $2 million toward forest restoration, but that money will barely make a dent in the backlog of projects envisioned for Utah’s five national forests.

While the agreement doesn’t address these funding needs, it does signal a degree of responsiveness from federal land managers that Utah leaders say has been lacking, particularly under the Obama administration. It reflects the concept of “shared stewardship” championed by new Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen in a strategy paper posted last August.

A similar agreement has been reached with Idaho and is in the works with Montana and Washington, where Christiansen once served as state forester.

“We are committed to work together to innovate together and to make it work for Utah for all the multiple values that our forests and our grasslands provide,” said Christiansen, who stood behind Perdue as he signed two copies of the agreement.

A key component is mapping priority areas to guide forest treatments across jurisdictional boundaries. For Utah, some of these areas are found in the beetle-ravaged lodgepole stands in the western Uinta Mountains, where Forest Service officials have been itching to move on several projects.

Wednesday’s display of federal-state comity contrasts sharply with the rhetoric routinely leveled against federal forest management at legislative meetings, where a pro-land-transfer lawmaker recently likened Utah’s national forests to “a dynamite factory run by chain-smoking chimpanzees.” Such assertions were the basis for last session’s passage of HB99, which Herbert signed, indemnifying county officials who take illegal actions on federally managed land if they are taken to “abate a catastrophic public nuisance.”

This bill was just one of many pieces of Utah legislation aiming to reduce federal authority over land management. It’s hard to square these measures with the Wednesday agreement’s description of “a long history of cooperation across the state’s public and private lands to address forest management and conservation issues.”

The agreement was also reached at a time when Utah is petitioning Perdue to ease protections on undeveloped national forests by carving out Utah-specific exemptions to the 2001 Roadless Rule. The petition seeks to partially roll back these protections to facilitate projects state officials say are needed to reduce fuel loads and other fire hazards on some of Utah’s 4 million unroaded acres.

Perdue deflected reporters’ questions about Utah’s roadless rule petition, saying Wednesday’s signing celebrated collaborative solutions to forest health challenges.

But observers questioned whether creating a Utah-specific rule is now worth the effort.

“The Shared Stewardship Agreement should satisfy the state’s interest in management flexibility and obviates the need for a contentious, expensive, and time-consuming roadless exemption rule making,” said Ken Rait, public lands project director for the Pew Charitable Trusts. “There can be common-ground solutions between the state and the Forest Service about how to address management issues within the scope of existing laws. We think the same approach should apply to the state’s interest in roadless as well. There is sufficient flexibility in the Roadless Rule to address the state’s forest management issues.”

Yet Utah is still pursuing the controversial petition, even though the new agreement addresses many of Utah’s complaints about forest management that drove the effort in the first place.

“Through Shared Stewardship, the state and the Forest Service have an unprecedented opportunity to work together to set landscape-scale priorities, implement projects at the appropriate scale, co-manage risks, share resources, and learn from each other,” the agreement states, “while building long-term capacity to live with wildfire.”

The deal identifies six commitments in which the federal officials will work closely with the state.

• Support existing partnerships, programs and initiatives, such as Utah’s Watershed Restoration Initiative.

• Identify priorities for protecting at-risk communities and watersheds.

• Make joint decisions and sharing resources.

• Co-manage wildfire risks.

• Share planning efforts.

• Listen to local communities to learn “about active management and desired landscape-scale outcomes, including capacity building and economic development opportunities."

According to Herbert, one of the ideas he kicked around with Perdue was boosting livestock grazing in the forests.

“Let’s keep the growth in the underbrush down by more grazing,” he said. “It’s mutually beneficial. It helps our farmers’ agricultural interests out there. It keeps the forest in good shape, minimizes wildfires, and not only the starting of wildfires, but the magnitude and the ferocity of the wildfire that we see here taking place just last year.”

While Herbert characterized such moves as a “common sense,” numerous groups have long accused Utah ranchers of damaging national forests with excessive grazing pressure. Asked recently whether grazing is an appropriate tool for mitigating wildfire risk, Whittekiend shook his head, saying such a level of grazing could damage the forest’s ability to produce forage and safeguard watersheds.

“We don’t graze it down to a level that you’re truly reducing fuels when we graze. That would be a pretty serious impact,” he said. “We want sustainable grazing across the landscape. It does reduce some level of fuel if you are grazing off some grass, but we we don’t use grazing to create fuel breaks or anything.”

Wednesday’s agreement won’t resolve all the issues swirling around forest management, but it does mark a reset in Utah’s relations with the federal agency that oversees nearly all the high-elevation terrain that supplies Utahns with pure water, places to hunt, ski and hike and scenic skylines.

“This is an ongoing discussion for what are the options out there to make the forests more healthy,” Herbert said. “We don’t have all the answers. We certainly have questions. We’re going to work together to find those answers.”

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