Commentary: Herbert’s roadless rule petition won’t help wildfire situation

Tom Diegel

Last year Gov. Gary Herbert surprised the state’s 29 county executives by sending them a proposal to support him in Utah’s formal rejection of the “roadless rule” that was enacted by the US Forest Service (USFS) in 2001. The roadless rule set aside about half of the roadless areas on our national forests that lacked roads and prohibited new road construction and logging in these areas.

Some 373,000 miles of forest roads already crisscross the nation’s public lands. To manage this network, the U.S. Forest Service determined they would focus on maintaining the well-traveled roads and minimize their environmental impact, let forests reclaim the many unused roads-to-nowhere, and in special cases allow new roads to be built. For the last 17 years this roadless rule has generally worked well at allowing access to all Americans yet preserving the values our forests represent.

Until now. Emboldened by a like-minded national administration, Herbert has decided Utah should reject the 2001 roadless rule, under the guise of better state fire management. Last week the governor submitted his petition to the Secretary of Agriculture (who overseas the Forest Service) requesting that Utah be exempt from this rule. Should he succeed, however, his decision would actually put the state and its forested lands at greater risk.

We all agree that keeping people, property, and communities safe is the priority. Why then is the governor not focused more on reducing hazardous fuels near communities? Instead, he’s focusing on weakening important laws that protect our more remote forests that are often far from where fire-prone communities are located.

The recent rash of large forest fires in the West and the longer, hotter and drier fire seasons we will continue to experience is due to the years’-long drought, not the lack of forest roads or laws that conserve our forests. Human-caused ignitions from vehicle and gunfire sparks, cigarettes, and campfires are much more likely to occur next to a road. The infamous Brian Head fire of 2017 was started at a home (accessed by a road), and nationally the National Academy of Sciences found that 84 percent of wildfires in the U.S from 1992 to 2012 were human-caused.

The governor’s petition itself does not represent his Department of Natural Resources well. It states that building roads and cutting large-diameter trees improves forest health, and makes no citations to support these conclusions (probably because there are none).

Additionally, Herbert made it very clear that he is not interested in the public’s opinion on this rule change. When the governor rolled out his proposal late last fall, there was no mention of the proposal on the state’s website, scant opportunity for the public to learn more about the proposal aside from attending a small handful of meetings that were poorly advertised and sparsely attended, and there has been no process for actually considering public comment. The state has done little to no outreach to sovereign tribes and key stakeholders including recreation constituencies, conservation organizations, hunters/fishermen, scientists, and the communities who rely on water from national forests.

However, according to a recent poll of nearly 700 people conducted by a professional bi-partisan polling company, 74% of Utahns favor additional funding to protect its air, land, and waters, and Congress itself just last week approved permanent funding for the Land Water Conservation Fund. It’s clear that Utahns love their land and want to protect it, and protection doesn’t come from additional road building.

The petition states that the roadless rule has impeded work by the Forest Service. However, last fall USFS Wasatch-Cache Forest Supervisor Dave Whittekiend informed the state Legislature about the agency’s “Million Acre Challenge,” which refers to the 1.3 million acres in Utah that are literally shovel-ready to complete the same underbrush clearing that Herbert says is necessary by 2022. The cost to the USFS is $250 per acre, and the $340M total far eclipses the district’s entire $20M budget, as well as the state’s own $20M budget for all of its land management. If the governor is serious about his intent, he would work with the Legislature and the state’s congressional delegates to provide the funds to the Forest Service that Supervisor Whittekiend could put to immediate use.

It’s clear that Herbert is conveniently using our collective angst over drought-driven Western fires as a thinly-veiled excuse to further the state’s intent to “take over” more public lands to favor private economic development. Subverting a longstanding program that already allows access of all types, for all Utahns, onto forested land under the guise of better fire management by the state with limited opportunity for public comment is a sly ruse that should not be tolerated by the citizens who recreate on those lands.

Tom Diegel is vice president of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance and a member of the Central Wasatch Commission Stakeholder’s Council.