Commentary: More forest roads won’t mean fewer forest fires

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bark beetles have killed most of the conifers in this a roadless part of the western Uinta Mountains near Trial Lake in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Utah officials are petitioning the U.S. Forest Service to loosen protections on the state’s 4.2 million acres of inventoried roadless forest. Their stated aim is to improve forest health, but environmentalists are concerned the goal is to protected forests to logging.

Contrary to what Utah Gov. Gary Herbert claims, there is no direct cause-and-effect relationship between road access and fewer wildland fires.

That was the conclusion in 2001 when a team of U.S. Forest Service employees were charged with analyzing whether a proposal called “the Roadless Rule” – which would ban new road building in remote national forest roadless areas — would make wildfires worse. As a 37-year veteran of the Forest Service, a fire management and fire ecology analyst and a member of the original national Roadless Rule assessment team, I can confidently say today that I still stand by that original conclusion.

I reside in Ogden, but from 1999-2000, I was detailed to Washington, D.C., where I helped to analyze the affects the Roadless Rule would have on our national forests. The Roadless Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) team worked to determine whether the Roadless Rule would increase the risk of wildfires. Our research was exhaustive and detailed and, in subsequent years, stood up against numerous court challenges, including legal reviews at the U.S. Courts of Appeal for the Ninth and 10th Circuits.

Now, the Roadless Rule is yet again facing another adversary. This time, in my home state of Utah, Herbert wishes to undo protection for Utah’s national forest roadless areas under the veil of making residents safe from wildfire. I can say, unequivocally, based on the scientific analysis found in the original 2001 Roadless EIS, that to build roads in roadless areas will not reduce the risk of wildfire.

It’s true that wildfires pose a serious risk to communities across the West, but that’s because climate change has created a hotter, dryer, more explosive fire environment.

Utah should pay close attention to the threat of wildfire. Unfortunately, Herbert is looking in the wrong place. Backcountry forests far removed from communities are not the best use of limited wildfire funds.

Further, the national Roadless Rule Herbert seeks to overturn in Utah already allows for reducing fuels where needed to protect communities.

The Forest Service has 1.3 million acres “shovel-ready” hazardous fuel reduction projects ready for implementation. These fuel-management projects have gone through environmental review. But fire hazard reduction projects cost money — more than $340 million — and the Forest Service continues to be starved for fuel management project funding. Funding these projects would be far more effective than trying to develop new, costly projects, and, surely, from a public standpoint, controversial projects, in roadless areas.

Using the threat of wildfire to justify building roads into Utah’s roadless areas won’t make Utahans safer from wildfire. And a controversial and contentious proposal not based on science won’t help either. Wildfire is a real threat in Utah and elsewhere, and one that deserves a serious response, based in science, and focused on solutions that work.

If Herbert were serious about reducing the threat wildfire poses to communities, he could sign an agreement with the Forest Service permitting the state of Utah to undertake fuel reduction efforts on public land in and around communities in conjunction with similar efforts to reduce fuels on state or private land.

These common-sense wildfire hazard reduction ideas would help protect Utah communities from wildfire and would be less expensive, far more effective and receive more public support than controversial proposals to roll back existing protections for roadless areas.

As stated at the outset, the scientific analysis completed for the 2001 Roadless Rule still stands: “Fire occurrence data indicates that prohibiting road construction and reconstruction in inventoried roadless areas would not cause an increase in the number of acres burned by wildland fires or in the number of large fires.”

Dave Thomas

Dave Thomas, Ogden, a retired employee of the U.S. Forest Service, was a fuels specialist for the Forest Service Intermountain Region from 1996 to 2006 and lead fire management analyst on the Roadless Area Conservation EIS team from 1999 to 2000.

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