Utah will have more say in managing some of its federally-owned public lands, after Gov. Gary Herbert and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue signed a “shared stewardship” agreement on Wednesday.
“It’s a commitment to work together in a shared arrangement, a shared stewardship, as co-owners — co-stewards — of public lands,” Perdue said at the State Capitol before signing the document.
The agreement is light on specifics, but outlines areas where the state and the U.S. Forest Service, which falls under the Agriculture Department, can coordinate management of federal forests to mitigate risks of catastrophic wildfires, invasive species and forest diseases.
The pact will allow the state and federal government to build on existing programs such as Herbert’s Catastrophic Wildfire Reduction Strategy and the state’s Watershed Restoration Initiative.
“This new shared stewardship agreement offers us another tool in our toolkit to elevate cooperation with our federal partners,” Herbert said in a statement. “This added collaboration will help us address the most critical needs impacting the health of Utah forests and watersheds.”
The Agriculture Department has hammered out similar deals with other western states including Idaho, Washington and Montana.
State forest managers can now get to work on reducing risks for the upcoming fire season, said State Forester Brian Cottam. He said he will begin prioritizing high-risk areas with his federal counterparts.
“That’s never really occurred in the state of Utah, particularly when it comes to forest lands,” he said, “where we are together making decisions based on community protection, watershed protection, about where limited resources — time, money — where that’s going to be allocated to truly make a difference on the ground.”
One thing the document did not contain was an exception for Utah to the U.S. Forest Service’s roadless rule, which bars logging and road building on certain Forest Service lands.
Herbert petitioned the Agriculture Department earlier this year to create a “Utah-specific” roadless rule, which he said could help mitigate wildfires. During Perdue’s visit, Herbert and Perdue dodged questions from reporters about the status of the state’s petition.
Environmental groups sounded less enthusiastic about the new agreement.
Ashley Soltysiak, director of the Sierra Club's Utah chapter, said in an email that the agreement accomplishes little more than underscoring coordination, which is already — or should be — taking place. But she raised a red flag on the timing of the agreement.
"The state of Utah is currently seeking an exemption from the 2001 Roadless Rule which would weaken critical protections for nearly 4 million acres of national forests in the state," she said. "This petition lacks any legitimate scientific basis and has failed to include sovereign tribes and key stakeholders, including conservation and sportsmen’s organizations, recreation businesses, scientists and communities who rely on water from national forests."