Commentary: Herbert’s roadless rule petition is fiscally irresponsible

A door knocker made for the U.S. Forest Service is shown at Western Heritage Co. Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, in Loveland, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

As I watched the Gov. Gary Herbert unveil his petition for a Utah-specific Roadless Rule earlier this year, it became obvious that not only does the state’s proposal fail to consider the effects on wildlife, watersheds and recreational opportunities, but fails to address the cost as well.

For 30 years, I worked as a U.S. Forest Service economist in the Intermountain Region, developing management plans for 16 national forests, as well as helping the Washington. D.C.. office develop better policy and practices pertaining to economics and social science.

Herbert’s proposal emphasizes healthy forests and management practices aimed at reducing wildfire risks through actions such as forest thinning and timber harvest. Such ideas are common in the Forest Service, but the agency has never been successful getting Congress to appropriate funds for such activities in Utah and other areas of the West.

Even before the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule was enacted, the Forest Service was unable to receive sufficient funding from Congress for projects across the National Forest system. In 1998, the Forest Service had an $8.4 billion backlog in deferred maintenance, road reconstruction and bridge and culvert maintenance on more than 386,000 miles of roads. At the time, the Forest Service received only 20 percent of the annual funds it needed to maintain these existing roads. As a result, the backlog grew – and existing forest roads went longer and longer without the maintenance they needed.

Since then, nothing has changed. Because of the lack of funds to do necessary projects, adding unnecessary new roads to the Forest Service’s already $3 billion to-do list would only further inhibit the capacity of the Forest Service.

Active vegetative manipulation is very expensive. In beetle-infested Lodgepole Pine forests in Utah, it typically costs on average $700 per acre to salvage timber, but produces only $8 per acre in revenue. Thinning forests often costs between $1,000 and $2,000 per acre, often without any revenues at all. If the numbers don’t add up, something else must be at play.

The state has obligations to be good stewards of the land as well as stewards of hard-earned tax dollars. So, if changes to the Roadless Rule lack fiscally and environmentally sound judgement, what could be the impetus of this petition?

I won’t attempt to guess Herbert’s true intentions for bringing this petition to the Forest Service. I do know it is not a sincere or comprehensive attempt to combat wildfires. I also know that money doesn’t grow on trees in the arid and fire-prone forests of Utah.

I ask that, before rushing into a time-consuming and expensive policy change, Herbert provide justification based on sound science and economic viability for changing the Roadless Rule in Utah. I suspect none will be forthcoming and, should this initiative go forward, I’m afraid I don’t see a good outcome for Utahns or for the American people.

National forests are for all people. Management should be for the greater good of the people, not for the specific agenda of any single state. This petition burns taxpayers’ money, chasing unnecessary changes that would make management of public lands even more costly than it already is. And to add insult to injury, it would undermine the very principles and values through which roadless areas are protected.

Dave Iverson

Dave Iverson retired from the U.S. Forest Service in 2008 after 30 years of public service in the U.S. Forest Service’s Intermountain Region, spending most of his career as Intermountain regional economist. He also is a founding board member for Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE.org). Dave resides in Pleasant View.