State petitioning for more flexibility in ‘Roadless Rule’
By Robert Stevens
MANTI—Utah is submitting a petition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the governing federal department for the U.S. Forest Service, for more flexibility when it comes to the “Roadless Rule,” which mandates that 49 percent of national forest land in Utah, some 4 million acres, remain roadless.
The petition, originating in Gov. Gary Herbert’s office and submitted by the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, is asking for a Utah-specific amendment to the regulation, which was adopted by the U.S. Forest Service in 2001 to protect social and ecological values in areas in the Forest Service roadless inventory. Road construction and certain timber harvesting are banned in designated roadless areas.
An open house to explain the petition and hear public input was held last Thursday, Oct. 25 at the Sanpete County Courthouse. Public input meetings have been held in Richfield, Heber City and Cedar City, among other locations, and more meetings are scheduled around the state.
“We absolutely need to redefine what’s roadless in the Manti-La Sal,” Sanpete County Commissioner Claudia Jarrett says. “Not all of it needs to be redefined. Some of the rules makes sense, but I think a lot of the designation was arbitrary and capricious, and therefore has impacted certain communities relative to watershed, watershed protection and development of springs.”
Jarrett says she hopes people who regularly use the Manti-La Sal National Forest for their livelihoods, depend on its watershed or use it recreationally will consider the purpose of the petition and get informed about the process.
Utah is not the first state to pursue a state-specific amendment to the Roadless Rule. Colorado and Idaho both successfully pulled it off, and Alaska is working on a petition now.
Herbert cites forest health and wildfire as big reasons for the petition. The state contends the Roadless Rule limits the ability of forest managers to perform crucial management tasks such as removing deadfall and cutting out bark beetle infestations.
“With nearly half the state’s forest’s falling under this designation, we’ve got to make it easier for forest managers to improve forest health before it’s too late,” Herbert says. “This petition will give us more tools to proactively manage forest health and reduce conditions that result in wildfires that negatively impact wildlife, air and water quality.”
After more than 875 fires across the state during the 2018 fire season, Herbert says he is simply looking for answers. But the petition has also met some opposition.
During a public meeting in Salt Lake County, the Wilderness Society argued that according to its data, 90 percent of the acreage burned in wildfires in the pat five years was outside roadless areas. The Wilderness Society argued any amendment to the rule could leave forests vulnerable to new roads and timber harvests.
But Jake Garfield, policy analyst with the public lands coordinating office, insists the state is not looking for more roads and timber harvest options, just a way to have more flexibility in management of forests.
Here in Sanpete, the petition has a strong endorsement by local leaders. “Since the 1800s, Sanpete County citizens have been good stewards of the mountains,” says Commissioner Steve Lund. “So much of our existence depends on access to the mountains, and the roads that are in place provide access to watersheds, grazing, natural resources, recreation and economic development.”
Garfield says there is still a long process ahead to make the amendment a reality, including a full Environmental Impact Study. So changes will not come to the mountains overnight. And even if approved, the amendment would require a separate round of environmental reviews before changes were implemented such as administratively opening up a road in a roadless area.
The public is invited to learn more and make public comment via www.ourforests.utah.gov.