“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
— Emmet “Doc” Brown, “Back to the Future” (1985)
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture — parent of the U.S. Forest Service — to start a process that would remove a blanket ban on building roads through some 4.2 million acres of national forests in the state.
It is a request that has not benefitted from much of anything in the way of public comment or scientific analysis — other than objections raised via commentaries offered to The Salt Lake Tribune — and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue would be wise to reject the petition, at least in its current form.
The governor’s office and the elected leaders of several Utah counties who are seeking significant changes in the 18-year-old rule deny accusations from environmentalist and Native American groups that their request is just a ruse to make it easier to bring a (currently nonexistent) timber industry to some of the state’s more sparsely populated areas.
The idea, Herbert insists, is that building more roads through what are now many pristine forests would make it easier to prevent and extinguish forest fires.
The problem with that argument is that, at least according to an analysis from The Wilderness Society, nearly all of the fires that have plagued Utah forests and nearby human habitations in the past decade have begun and burned outside of the current Roadless Rule areas.
Those same experts argue that keeping human beings — or, more importantly, their cars and trucks and ATVs — out of those roadless areas is itself the best guard against igniting big forest fires. They note that small, naturally occurring blazes — of the sort that have been common in these parts since long before European settlement — are actually a guard against the larger conflagrations because they burn away tinder-box fuels such a brush and saplings.
The expressed desire of many state and county officials to more aggressively “manage” large forests does lead one to wonder how these wonders of nature ever got along without us, for the thousands or millions of years the trees were here before we were.
If our state officials are really worried about the damage that can be done by forest fires — and they are worried about that — then they should leave the vast roadless areas of the state alone and turn their attention to parts of the state that are criss-crossed by all kinds of trails, roads, streets and highways. That’s where the people live, where they have built sometimes very expensive homes, and where state and local government and wise property owners should be creating fire-resistant zones, choosing safer building materials, discouraging residential developments with only one way in or out and taking other steps to minimize the very real danger posed at the interface of people, trees and, increasingly, climate change.
Roads? For what we should be doing, we don’t need roads.