Commentary: No good reason to roll back Utah’s roadless rules

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune The Manti-La Sal National Forest east of Fairview, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016. Utah's national forests are beginning to develop new management plans, which is stirring up controversy as some think the plans are fronts for expanding wilderness or restricting grazing.

Just over a year ago, the state of Utah orchestrated the biggest rollback of public land protections in history when it persuaded President Donald Trump to slash millions of acres from the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Now, the state is at it again as it seeks to remove protections from 4 million acres of Utah’s wildest and most remote national forests.

The national forests that Utah is targeting were identified by the Forest Service in the 1970s as areas with outstanding ecological, recreational, watershed and other values. This includes forest land in the High Uintas, along the Wasatch Front and in more remote mountain ranges like the La Sals, Tushars and Abajos.

These forests provide drinking water for Utahns across the state. They provide habitat for countless species of plants and animals, including many that are facing extinction. And they provide the world-class recreation opportunities — including hiking, camping, skiing, hunting, fishing and horseback riding — that have made Utah famous.

For nearly two decades, conservative Western states and industries have sought to overturn the rule that protects the clean, cold water, wildlife habitat, air quality and recreational opportunities that America’s forests provide. The mining and logging industries argue that these areas should be open to mining, logging, oil and gas drilling and other forms of development. Now, Utah has joined the fray.

Last June, Utah put forth its intention to ask the United States Department of Agriculture to eliminate the roadless rule in Utah and replace it with a new rule crafted by Utah counties. The state then asked the counties for their recommendations. The results have been predictably bad.

While final recommendations are not yet complete, draft proposals call for opening most of the state’s protected forests to logging, mining, oil and gas drilling and new roads. Such a move would, of course, completely undermine the values for which these areas are protected.

The state of Utah asserts that loosening rules for these areas is necessary to restore forests and prevent catastrophic wildfires, a claim belied by common sense and sound science. The rule that Utah seeks to overturn permits clearing out small trees and brush that poses a fire threat and, of course, fighting fires. According to the Forest Service, every wildfire prevention project proposed on national forest land in Utah under this rule in recent years has been approved.

What’s more, most of the forested areas — more than 90 percent — that pose the greatest fire risk to communities are well outside the remote, untracked forest areas covered by the rule Utah seeks to overturn. So, if the roadless rule isn’t affecting forest restoration or fire safety efforts, why does the state of Utah seek to overturn it?

Part of the answer lies in a memo developed by the state’s public lands office in 2016, which calls for revoking the roadless rule entirely to “reinstate timber production” on these and other public lands. The rest lies in the state’s proposed management for these formerly protected areas, which would open many areas to mining and oil and gas drilling.

So there it is. Under the guise of preventing wildfires, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert seeks to open even more public land to logging, mining and oil and gas drilling. Perhaps such subterfuge may help the state “message” its ghastly proposal, but it won’t help the millions of Utahns who rely on these forests for their drinking water, scenery or outdoor relaxation.

Utahns should see through the façade and reject the state’s latest effort to roll back the protections for the amazing forests that make Utah such a great place to live, work and play.

Paul Spitler

Paul Spitler is director of The Wilderness Society’s Utah Roadless Defense Campaign.

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