“This ‘death by a thousand cuts’ is going to be the ruin of the West,” said Lauren Wood, a lifelong river runner, Utah business owner and self-proclaimed climate justice activist.
Wood is part owner of Holiday River Expeditions, a biking and rafting guide company based in Green River, as well as a board member of the Utah Chapter Sierra Club and the Green River Action Network, a Colorado Riverkeeper Affiliate. She was speaking about a petition from the Utah Governor’s Office, submitted in February to the U.S. Forest Service, to allow the state to tailor the national “Roadless Rule” with changes made specifically for Utah.
Wood dismisses the state’s rationale for the petition as having no scientific foundation, and instead sees the measure as one of many attacks from policymakers and industry against the state’s natural areas and the climate. Wood and some other critics of the move see it as part of a larger trend of regulation rollbacks in the West, along with other decisions like the shrinking of public land designations and the reduction of public comment periods for some federal actions.
The national Roadless Rule, established in 2001, prohibits commercial timber harvesting, new road building, and road re-construction in “Identified Roadless Areas” (IRAs) in about 58.5 million acres across the country, and about 4 million acres in Utah. The rule contains exceptions to these prohibitions in certain instances, including imminent threat to public health and safety due to flood or wildfire. Jake Garfield, legal counsel at the Utah Governor’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, said that in Utah, these exceptions don’t go far enough to allow for effective fire-prevention projects. The state wants the ability to cut large-diameter timber and to create roads, activities not allowed under the current rule, as needed for thinning projects and forest health management.
Wood, however, said, “We have a very fragile and delicate ecosystem out here and it’s increasingly being overrun. The more we give away, the less resilient we’re going to be as we face an increasingly uncertain climate future in a very arid region.”
The Utah Governor’s Office expresses concern about climate change, and on a website it created to explain the reasoning behind the petition to the public (ourforests.utah.gov), the state argues that more flexibility is needed in the Forest Service Roadless Rule to maintain forest health and prevent catastrophic wildfires, which are becoming more commonplace, it acknowledges, in part due to climate change.
Representatives in the House supported a bill that has recently passed in Congress to designate many acres of wilderness in Utah, a stance aligned with conservationists, rather than following the trend which concerns those same groups.
Alaska recently submitted a petition similar to Utah’s to Sonny Perdue, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, who has the authority to grant or deny such requests. That petition asked for an exemption to the rule.
In August of 2018, instead of removing the rule altogether, the state of Alaska and the U.S. Forest Service signed an agreement to develop an Alaska-specific roadless rule, which Perdue said he hoped would be completed within 18 months of the agreement.
Dave Thomas is a retired U.S. Forest Service official who lives in Utah. He was the fire management analyst on the original Environmental Assessment team that developed the 2001 Roadless Rule, and he does not believe the rule needs to be changed for effective fire management.
He pointed to the approximate 1-million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area in Idaho as an example of a landscape that researchers have identified as fire-resilient.
“There’s not a road in it,” Thomas said. “And the reason it’s a fire-resilient landscape is they’ve allowed fires to burn in there since the early 1970s ... fires literally run into each other now. They’re not allowed to get big. So there’s a large landscape that actually, without a road, was able to manage itself.”
Thomas pointed out that according to reports written by Utah state agencies, the areas of highest fire risk and greatest potential negative impacts from fire are in areas that contain roads, not roadless areas under regulation by the 2001 rule.
The Utah Division of Emergency Management (DEM) has collaborated with various other state and federal agencies to create a 2019 Hazard Mitigation Plan, including a chapter on wildfire. That chapter identifies what DEM deems to be the areas of greatest concern for wildfire.
“Zones of greatest potential loss to wildfire are located in WUI [Wildland Urban Interface] areas that continue to expand with the state’s growing population,” the document says — areas that are on the border between communities and natural landscapes, rather than remote areas.
Thomas argued that the benefits of projects in roadless areas would not justify the cost of building new roads in those areas. One figure from the National Forest Service Road Management Strategy in 2001 estimated the cost of a new road constructed in the forest to be between $8,000 to $50,000 per mile.
“What if I owned Utah and Utah was my ranch,” Thomas imagined. “Would I really go down to my bank and withdraw that kind of money to take care of a low-risk fire area? I wouldn’t do it. Why I wouldn’t do that is because I have hundreds of legitimate high-risk fire areas outside of roadless areas.”
LEGAL COUNSEL: SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE HAS NOT MADE A DECISION
Utah’s petition could be stymied by the Roadless Area Conservation Act of 2019, a bill recently introduced in Congress by Representatives Ruben Gallego of Arizona and Maria Cantwell of Washington.
The bill would codify the 2001 Roadless Rule into federal law, meaning the authority to amend or change the rule would rest with Congress rather than the Secretary of Agriculture, and a much more complex process would have to take place in order to change the rule.
In 2012 and 2016, respectively, Idaho and Colorado successfully had the roadless rule modified in their states.
The 2019 bill would allow those changes to remain, but does not make any special provisions for Alaska.
The bill is now being examined in the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry and in the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.
In the meantime, Secretary Perdue has declined to make a decision regarding Utah’s petition, though he did recently visit Utah and meet with Gov. Gary Herbert to sign a “shared stewardship agreement.”
The five-page document reaffirms the cooperation between the state of Utah and the U.S. Forest Service in managing public lands, especially for wildfires, but does not outline any new arrangements or offer detailed plans or actions.
“It’s a partnership between the state of Utah and the Forest Service to identify places that have the highest risk of forest fires, or places where the risk of forest fires will have the greatest impact on communities and on our water resources,” said Garfield of the agreement. “And the idea is that by identifying those priority areas, the Forest Service and the state can then coordinate efforts to prevent wildfires, and in those areas, practically do things to avoid catastrophic wildfires in the future.”
The document outlines various successful collaborations between the state and the Forest Service, and pledges to continue them.
“It’s already been done,” Garfield acknowledged, “but it’s a re-commitment to do that at a greater scale. The agreement doesn’t have any specific authorizations to do new things that haven’t been done — it’s not really implementation-level type of agreement.”
Back at the Utah Governor’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, Garfield says that Perdue and Herbert did discuss the Roadless Rule petition behind closed doors, but the two have not shared the content of that discussion with his officer or the public.
“As far as I understand things, the Secretary of Agriculture has not made a decision yet and is still evaluating what to do,” Garfield said.
Editor's note: This article was updated on June 13 to reflect that Lauren Wood is not currently a resident of Moab.