Utah’s Republican Gov. Gary Herbert’s request for the Trump administration to rollback restrictions on 4 million acres of national forest land in his state has environmentalists raising flags that it could spur a wave of states in the region to follow suit.
“We really urge the Secretary of Agriculture to reject the petition and send the state of Utah back to the drawing board,” said Paul Spitler, director of wilderness policy for the Wilderness Society.
Last week, Herbert petitioned the U.S. Forest Service to tweak its 2001 Roadless Rule. The Clinton-era provision essentially banned logging and road construction on forest service lands that were deemed to have wilderness qualities.
If accepted, the tweak would allow timber harvest and road building in places in Utah where it was previously off-limits.
Herbert argues the change will allow companies to thin out dead and dying trees and help ease wildfires.
“A state-specific Roadless Rule should enhance the Forest Service’s efforts to reduce hazardous fuel loads and dead or dying trees that contribute to the risk of unwanted wildfires,” the petition stated. “By reducing the risk of unwanted wildfires, the Forest Service could thereby minimize the damage of such unwanted wildfires, including impacts to water quality, air quality, and other Roadless Area Characteristics.”
But Spitler isn’t convinced.
“This is using fire as a boogeyman in order to achieve Governor Herbert’s policy aims, which is more commercial logging in Utah’s remote national forests,” he said.
Spitler points to a confidential 2016 policy guidance memo from the governor’s office obtained by the Pacific Standard.
One of the memo’s stated goals was to “revoke the Forest Service’s roadless rule and reinstate timber production on federal land that has been managed as special areas or roadless areas.”
The governor’s office was unavailable to comment.
According to an analysis by the environmental protection group the Center for Biological Diversity, 74 percent of Utah’s most sensitive wildlife species live in roadless areas.
“This would decimate habitat for Utah wildlife already struggling to survive,” said Randi Spivak, the center’s public lands director. “This is an incredibly cynical ploy to open up forests to road building and industrial logging — it’s not about forest health. It’s a horrible deal for Utah’s forests and citizens.”
If it accepts Herbert’s petition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture must then launch a lengthy environmental review and a public comment period.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.
Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested that the U.S. Department of Agriculture must launch an environmental review and a public comment period before accepting the petition. That would come after it accepts the petition.