Cedar City — State officials held the last of five open houses Tuesday on their proposal to seek looser federal restrictions in roadless areas.
The Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office set up maps and posters to explain why Gov. Gary Herbert wants to petition the U.S. Forest Service to allow greater flexibility with the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule. Colorado and Idaho already have persuaded the federal agency to amend the so-called Roadless Rule.
Roughly half of Utah’s forests lie in federally designated roadless areas. Under the state’s plan, existing wilderness areas would remain roadless and proposals for temporary roads would still have to undergo the in-depth National Environmental Policy Act Reviews that are currently required to safeguard soil health, drinking water and wildlife.
Supporters of the plan say it would be an answer to the dead tree stands in Utah’s forests that look to some like so many matchsticks ready to flare into wildfires. If Utah’s petition is successful, foresters would have latitude to build temporary roads in some protected areas to prevent wildfires by removing dead trees and undergrowth. Benefits, supporters say, would include cleaner air and water, as well as healthy forests.
“We need healthy forests that are logged — cleaned up,” said Iron County Commissioner Alma Adams, who supports the state’s plan. “Then the trees, the young trees, can grow properly.”
Adams said he saw this approach work on last year’s Brian Head Fire. Some residents agree that eased restrictions are necessary, and give locals more say in forest management.
“We need those roads for the good management of the forest, not just to lock it up,” said Matthew Wood, a farmer and rancher who also supports the idea. “Right now, any time you go to any meetings with the government agencies, all you get is the middle finger.”
But environmental groups oppose the proposal. Based on wildfire data from the past six years, they say just a small fraction of the wildfires state officials say they want to prevent are in areas that the state wants to open up for temporary roads. That makes environmental groups worry that the petition is simply a ruse to allow more logging and more development.
St. George resident Katy Peterson had a lot of questions — and concerns — about the petition and whether it would mean an erosion of environmental protections.
”What’s that going to turn into if they start opening roads?” she said, pointing to a map illustrating the proposed changes. “And if this road’s open, does that mean ATVs can come in?”
Nov. 9is the state’s deadline for public input. Herbert’s plan is likely to be submitted to Washington early next year.