SALT LAKE CITY — Like Colorado and Idaho, Utah is seeking a state-specific amendment to the national Roadless Rule to give the U.S. Forest Service more flexibility to manage overgrown forests that are fueling catastrophic wildfires.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is seeking the solution on the heels of a summer that saw more than 875 wildfires ravaging homes, other structures, rangeland, livestock and watersheds.
“With nearly half the state’s forests falling under this (roadless) designation, we’ve got to make it easier for the forest managers to improve forest health before it is too late,” Herbert said. “This petition will give us more tools to proactively manage forest health and reduce the conditions that result in wildfires that negatively impact wildlife, air and water quality.”
Any amendment to the Roadless Rule covering 4 million acres of forested land in Utah would have to go through an environmental review process subject to public comment.
To that end, the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office has been conducting preliminary outreach in a series of meetings to detail information about the effort seeking the modification.
Meetings that remain are:
• 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sevier County Administration Building, Richfield
• 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Wasatch County Senior Center, Heber City
• 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday, Sanpete County Courthouse, Manti
• 5 p.m.to 7 p.m. Oct. 30, Heritage Center, Cedar City
Jake Garfield, policy analyst with the office, said the state is not seeking more roads or more timber harvests — it won't decide those options — but rather an avenue for the federal agency to exercise more flexibility.
"The whole purpose is to give the Forest Service more flexibility in the management decisions they need to make to restore the health of the forests," he said. "It is not telling the Forest Service they need to construct new roads, or open old roads that have been closed."
Critics worry it will do just that, however.
The Wilderness Society said any amendment to the Roadless Rule leaves forests vulnerable to new roads and timber harvests.
“The Roadless Rule has helped protect Utah’s outdoors heritage for almost two decades and saved taxpayers untold millions of dollars through avoided road building and maintenance costs," said Megan Birzell, roadless defense campaign manager for the organization.
"We are deeply concerned that, in seeking to remove Utah from the Roadless Rule, the state is prioritizing one forest use — timber harvest — over the values all Utahns enjoy in their national forests — clean water and abundant wildlife that allow for world-class hunting and fishing.”
But Garfield said even if the amendment is granted, any other action the Forest Service might take – such as administratively opening up a road in a roadless area — would be subject to another round of environmental reviews.
As forest fires have grown increasingly worse in the West and the fire season has been extended, the federal government and states are grappling with their aftermath and searching for ways to stem the onslaught.
Garfield said both Colorado and Idaho successfully sought state-specific amendments to the Roadless Rule and are implementing them now. Alaska, too, is crafting a petition.
"We're not the first," Garfield said.
The Roadless Rule, he added, was designed to protect seven specific values like soil health, clean drinking water, primitive recreation and diversity of wildlife.
"We are supportive of all those seven values in the national forests across the state,"he said. "The problem with the Roadless Rule is that some of those roadless values the rule was designed to protect are being negatively impacted by the regulations in the rule itself."