The Mt. Peale Inventoried Roadless Area is in the Manti-La Sal National Forest just outside of Moab. The area is in the boundaries of San Juan County. [Photo courtesy of Tim Peterson / Grand Canyon Trust]

Public lands policy keeps Utah elected officials, land management agencies and advocacy groups constantly on their toes.

On Feb. 28, the State of Utah submitted a petition to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) asking to replace the nationwide 2001 United States Forest Service Roadless Area Conservation Rule with a Utah-specific “Roadless Rule” that would apply to Forest Service lands within Utah.

The request is similar to one made by officials in Alaska; in 2018, the USDA agreed to create a state-specific Roadless Rule for Alaska.

The existing national rule was adopted in 2001 to protect selected areas, called Inventoried Roadless Areas, by prohibiting new road construction, road reconstruction and timber harvesting within those boundaries.

Inventoried Roadless Areas are characterized by high quality, undisturbed air, water and soil, a diversity of plants, animals, and habitat, watersheds that contribute to public drinking water, and cultural and scenic values, as well as other possible site-specific qualities which make them deserving of protection. About 4 million acres of national Forest Service land in Utah is protected under this rule.

The rule also notes that the Forest Service receives less than 20 percent of the funds that would be needed to maintain the existing road system.

“It makes little fiscal or environmental sense to build additional roads in inventoried roadless areas that have irretrievable values at risk when the agency is struggling to maintain its existing extensive road system,” the policy reads. The document was written 18 years ago, but it is likely that the agency still lacks the funding to keep up with its maintenance backlog. According to the 2019 Forest Service Budget Justification, their budget for this year is $4.77 billion, about $486 million less than the 2018 fiscal year.

The Budget Justification says that “Maintaining fiscal integrity of the agency while focusing on Administration goals and priorities required reductions in funding to Capital Improvement and Maintenance, Research, Land Acquisition and State and Private Forestry Programs.”

The current “Roadless Rule,” as it is known, still allows multiple-use activities, aside from commercial logging, to continue, including recreation, motorized use, grazing, mineral extraction, and oil and gas development, as long as those activities don’t require the construction of new roads. It also outlines various provisions for timber removal and road construction under certain conditions.

However, the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office claims that national forests in Utah would benefit from changes to the Roadless Rule.

The office has created a website,, to explain to the public the reasoning behind its request to create a Utah-specific rule.

The site says that in some Inventoried Roadless Areas the current rule “has prevented the Forest Service from using the tools they need to promote the healthy, resilient forests that the Roadless Rule was meant to protect. Some Inventoried Roadless Areas are plagued by bark-beetle infestations, excessive underbrush, and overgrown timber. These conditions can lead to catastrophic wildfires that damage Utah’s air quality, watersheds, and wildlife habitat.” The petition proposes that 478,048 acres remain under the 2001 rule, while 3,159,597 acres fall under the Utah-specific rule, and 373,122 are removed from the rule altogether.

The website heavily emphasizes the danger of wildfires, and says that the five largest fires in the state last year “burned significant portions of Forest Service roadless areas.”

Before sending the petition to the USDA, the governor’s office met with representatives from every county in the state — all of them contain some Inventoried Roadless Areas — to gather their input.

Salt Lake County and Grand County asked to be omitted from the petition, choosing to keep the existing rule in place. In Grand County’s letter to the governor’s office, dated Nov. 1, 2018, the council said “It is important [to] our watersheds, habitat, and the health of our citizens that Grand County’s inventoried roadless areas retain the current protections provided under the 2001 Roadless Rule.”

The San Juan County Commission, which has new members since the state approached counties last year regarding its plans, has now also passed a resolution opposing the state’s petition for a Utah-specific roadless rule.

The state petition says that a Utah Roadless Rule would still limit road construction and timber cutting in Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRAs), but would provide for exceptions “at the discretion of the Responsible Official.” The “Responsible Official” is not defined in the petition.

These exceptions would allow for temporary administrative road construction and/or timber harvesting if those steps are considered necessary for the maintenance, restoration, or improvement of wildlife habitat, ecosystem composition, and/or forest and watershed health, or if they are considered necessary to prevent the threat of flood or wildfire.

The existing rule does contain provisions allowing roads to be built for firefighting activities, but the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office (PLPCO) feels the language is too restrictive to allow for necessary preventative measures.

“The provisions in there are good, they’re helpful,” acknowledged Jake Garfield at the PLPCO.  “Essentially what we’re asking for is to take those exceptions in the existing rule, and expand upon them. Some of them don’t quite go far enough.”

Garfield explained that the wildfire provision allows for the construction of temporary roads for the protection of public health and safety from an imminent threat, such as from floods or wildfires.

“The word ‘imminent’ prevents the Forest Service from actually building any roads to protect health and safety,” Garfield said, “because the Forest Service currently interprets that to mean that a fire has actually started. Under the existing rule, a road actually can’t be built to address future threats to health and safety, to address a high fuel load that could, in a couple years, due to a lightning strike, lead to a major catastrophic wildfire.”

Garfield also noted that the current rule prohibits the removal of large diameter trees in IRAs.

“There’s certain circumstances where it’s just not effective,” he said, of the currently allowed removal of only small diameter trees. “[If] there’s an overgrown area where almost all the trees are large diameter, and that’s contributing to the high fuel loads, there’s times when the Forest Service should have the ability to cut down at least some of those large diameter trees. But these little small details in the Roadless Rule prevent that from happening.”

If the USDA accepts the petition, that will be only the first step in the process of creating an official new rule. An environmental impact statement will need to be completed, a scoping period will occur, a draft will be published and public comment solicited before any final draft is approved.

The Forest Service declined to take a stance on the petition, offering only this statement in response to questions: “The U.S. Department of Agriculture has received Utah’s petition for a state-specific roadless area conservation rule. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is reviewing the petition and will respond at a later date.”

Garfield pointed to a thinning project taking place on Monroe Peak on the Fishlake National Forest, with partnership between the USFS and the Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR), as an example of responsible forest health management.

The project is intended to restore aspen habitat. Garfield said the PLPCO would like to see similar forest restoration projects happen throughout the state, and they think a Utah-specific Roadless Rule would allow for more flexibility in implementing such projects. The resulting healthier forests would then, if ignited, burn at a lower intensity than forests managed under the current Roadless Rule.

Several advocacy groups have questioned the state’s motives, however.

The Outdoor Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of outdoor recreation groups who advocate for the conservation of public lands, wrote a letter to Gov. Gary Herbert supporting the existing Roadless Rule, saying that it does an excellent job of protecting wild lands and areas valued for hiking, biking, skiing and rock climbing.

The letter goes on to say,“The Roadless Rule also provides significant management flexibility for a variety of types of other multiple use activities. The one activity the Roadless Rule fundamentally prohibits is the extensive road building associated with intensive commercial logging, which is in many instances incompatible with the protection of the myriad other values afforded by Utah National Forests.”

The national nonprofit organization The Pew Charitable Trusts has also expressed concerns that the state’s petition for a more flexible rule is actually the first step in reopening IRAs to logging.

In a letter to the Moab Sun News, a spokesperson for The Pew Charitable Trusts, wrote, “Governor Herbert’s petition to exempt the state from the longstanding national roadless rule policy would remove four million acres of national forest land (nearly 90 percent) from current safeguards against logging and development.”

To substantiate their concerns, representatives from The Pew Charitable Trusts reference a 2016 document from the governor’s office, which outlines a list of public lands objectives. These objectives include amending or revoking protections of sage grouse habitat, increasing grazing on public lands, and diminishing the size of national monuments that “reserved more land than the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected,” which refers to the parameters given in the Antiquities Act of 1906. Regarding the Roadless Rule, the document recommends that the office support actions 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 15-page document is labeled “confidential and privileged,” but can now be found online. The magazine Pacific Standard claims to have obtained the document through a public records request, but Garfield said the document was leaked to the Sutherland Institute, a Salt Lake City-based think tank, from within the governor’s office. He also downplayed the document’s importance, saying it was just a “brainstorming draft” being circulated among a “couple folks” within the office.

“Nothing with that document actually happened,’ Garfield said. “It never went to the governor nor the lieutenant governor or chief of staff… [it] was not in any way indicative of any policy preferences by the governor.”

The website explicitly says, “The State’s petition does not open the door to commercial logging or the construction of new recreational roads.”

The text of the state’s petition itself, which is four pages, also does not suggest a repeal of the Roadless Rule altogether.

“We don’t want to change the intent of the rule at all, it was a well-intentioned rule and has done some good in some places,” Garfield said. “We are asking for some tweaks — some surgical changes, I would call them — that are all designed to put more tools in the hands of the U.S. Forest Service so they can do effective restoration projects more efficiently and at a lower cost, and get our forests where we want them to be.”

Ken Rait gave a very different characterization from Garfield’s of the state’s proposed changes.

Rait is a project director for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. Public Lands Conservation program. He compared Utah’s request for a state-specific rule to other states’ past protests against the rule, saying that if Utah wanted to allow for thinning projects in specific areas, they should have been more specific in the petition. In Colorado and Idaho, for example, certain identified IRAs were contested and the rule was amended to accommodate those areas.

“They were painting with a very fine brush, if you will,” Rait said. “In Utah, they’re using a paint roller.”

Utah seeks a tailored rule on federal lands within the state

“Essentially what we’re asking for is to take those exceptions in the existing rule, and expand upon them. Some of them don’t quite go far enough.”