OGDEN — District Ranger Sean Harwood’s desk had two documents stacked on it last week — a history of Brighton Ski Resort and a massive draft document for a future grazing lease near Richmond.
The new Ogden district ranger for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest has an interest in the agency’s past, no doubt, but as he settles into his new job, he’s making plans for the long term. Since starting his career in 1990, Harwood has been employed at many levels of the U.S. Forest Service, from being part of the Aerial Photography Field Office to working on travel management, trails and recreation in the Intermountain Region. All the while, he’s somehow stayed in Utah.
In his new district ranger position, he’ll manage aspects of the forest like trails, campgrounds and wildlife habitat. He’ll also act as one of the public’s main points of contact on issues related to his district.
As a local, Harwood understands the Ogden Ranger District. He graduated from Bonneville High School and received his geography degree from Weber State University. Having spent about three months in his new position, Harwood spoke to the Standard-Examiner about challenges the local forest faces and his goals for the future.
The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: In your nearly three decades working for the U.S. Forest Service in Utah, have you seen attitudes change about our local forest and its role?
A: I don’t know if attitudes have changed so much. What has changed is the population. There are so many users now that want certain opportunities in the forest. That’s kind of where some of the issues come in — finding the balance. Balancing all the user groups. The Ogden District’s main role is recreation. There’s Pineview Reservoir, Snowbasin ski area, South Fork camping, Causey Reservoir. We have very little timber, but we do have a lot of grazing allotments. In fact, I’m working on a big grazing project right now, that’s how I started my position here, the Three Creeks grazing allotment near Randolph. It’s been seven years in the making.
Q: What’s the biggest threat facing the Ogden Ranger District? Is it being loved to death by all those user groups, or do you see another pressing issue?
A: “Loved to death” is a good one. The population on the Wasatch Front is supposed to double by 2050. That’s definitely a challenge, keeping those recreation opportunities available for the population without hurting the natural resources.
Q: Motorized vehicle use has been a hot topic the last couple of years with the new travel plan. It seems there are more and more people with motorized vehicles accessing more parts of the forest. Do you see that as a challenge, and if so, what do you plan to do?
A: On the Ogden Ranger District itself, you’re not going to see a lot of new trails being blazed. Most of the forest is already accessible to motorized vehicles. We do have an issue with user-created and unauthorized trails, people shortcutting between different things. But as far as getting further and deeper in the forest, that’s not a problem. You can pretty much go anywhere already. The travel management plan puts a cap on that. We have our motorized travel map now, and we can hand it to the public and say, “This is where you can take your motorized stuff.”
Q: Talk to me about enforcement. In areas like Monte Cristo and the Skyline Trail, there are issues with motorized travelers vandalizing resources and going off trail. It really concerns some forest users. Your office is limited in its resources to enforce things, so what’s the strategy?
A: The motorized groups, to be flat honest, are great to work with. We have ATV clubs, and they’re wiling to help us. I have one law enforcement officer that works on the district, and she can’t be everywhere, so my strategy is to get these ATV groups to use peer pressure. I’m also coordinating with the state, we have put together a program where we have a volunteer coordinator, one person, working with all these groups. They’re doing trail patrols, they’re putting up signing, they’re doing all kinds of projects, and these folks are out on the ground helping us keep people where they’re supposed to be. It becomes a peer-to-peer way to do it. It seems to work pretty well.
Q: Pineview Reservoir has seen its own share of issues crop up in recent years, from trash on beaches to overnight use to crowding. What do you plan to do there?
A: The first thing we’re going to do with Pineview is work with our concessionaire, American Land & Leisure, to shore up some of the problems — the trash, the number of people on the lake, the overnight camping. We have a document that outlines what they’re supposed to do and what we expect, and that’s coming up to be renewed in 2018. But we went over permit this morning, talked about areas where we can help them do a better job, and that’s where we’re going to start. It’s a big, big issue, and you’re not going to be able to tackle it all at once.
We’re going to supply some dumpsters, we’re going to add some pack-in-pack-out areas, and we’re going to supply American Land & Leisure with some forest protection officers, seasonal staff that will be on the beaches reminding people to be responsible and pick up after themselves. We’re also talking about different fee areas.
Consistency, too, I think will help. We’ll get used to working with each other.
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Q: Any plans for trail maintenance?
A: I’m big on trail maintenance and a lot a bigger on maintenance than I am on building new trails. I’m of the attitude that we have a hard time taking care of what we have already, so building new stuff doesn’t help us.
Maintenance, in my opinion, is taking a trail that’s in bad alignment and causing resource damage and improving the alignment to make it more sustainable. We have direction from the national level telling us to work better with partners and volunteers, to use fire career staffers to help with trail maintenance, so we have different ways to make a good effort.
Q: Are there any trails at the top of your priority list?
A: Of course, the ones that get loved to death like Skyline Trail. Those trails have to be maintained regularly. We’ve tried to make them as sustainable as we can, but they get used. Any trails that see a lot of use need maintenance for sure, especially anything motorized.
Q: If Congress were to hand you a blank check for one project on the Ogden Ranger District, what would you like to do?
A: There’s so much we could do. Currently, I think we’re going to have a lot of issues out there once all that snow melts out of the hills. After we get the spring runoff, if I had a blank check, I’d’ look at the roads and trails, fix the bridges, do whatever we need to do for the transportation system. Access to the forest is important.
Q: What’s your favorite way to spend time on the forest?
A: Horses. I have three of my own. I have a motorcycle, I have an ATV, I love to hike, and skiing is my winter sport, but there’s nothing like riding a horse — just being out and getting out where the horse can take you.
Q: What do you think is the biggest issue facing the Forest Service as a whole?
A: As a whole, we need to recognize the fact that recreation is our niche now. We’ve always been known as a timber and fire agency, but we’re not cutting the timber we used to cut. Recreation is huge. The national parks are nice, they allow hiking and stuff, but we allow skiing. We allow motorized use. We allow equestrian use. People come to the national forest for recreation now. We need to figure ways to keep these opportunities sustainable.
Q: You mentioned fire. Does fire on our local forest keep you up at night?
A: The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache is the asbestos forest. We get fires, no doubt about it. But we have a real short burn season. Just as it dries out, September hits and it cools off.
Q: One complaint I hear a lot on the user end, and I’d imagine you do too, is the number of hoops it takes to even get a trail improved on forest service lands. What would you say to those people?
A: We have requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Like I was describing a bit ago, we have proponents over here who want new trails, we have environmentalists over here who see what those trails do to the natural landscape, and we have to balance that. That’s where the bureaucracy comes in. It’s complicated, it is. We’ve always said when we leave a room, if everyone’s mad, we’ve done our job. We haven’t made this group or that group completely happy. Instead, we did what we needed to do to make them coordinate and reach an agreement.
Q: Is the amount of paperwork ever frustrating for you, too?
A: Yeah. A lot of times we get the black eye because we can’t just give everyone everything they want. There wouldn’t be anything left.
Q: You said you plan on being at the Ogden Ranger District for a while. Is climate change a concern for you in the years ahead?
A: You can’t tie it to a district or forest. Climate change is a concern to the world. I read a National Geographic article recently, “Seven things to know about climate change.” No. 1 is “the earth is warming,” No. 2 is “we’re at fault for it” and No. 3 is “we’re sure we’re at fault for it.” So it’s something everybody has to work on. As far as this district goes, everyone is feeling the effects of the drought. We may have had a good winter this year, but we’ve had three successive years of water rations. There’s definitely something going on, and I’m not even sure we can do anything about it.
Q: Have you received any direction from higher up, like the Trump administration or the Department of Agriculture, on how you can discuss climate change?
A: You know, there are rumors, but that’s all it is. We hear how President Trump’s revoking former President Obama’s climate change policies. I haven’t seen anything. We haven’t received any directions that I’m aware of. It’s not going to change the way we operate, we’re all about the natural resource anyway. We’re doing our jobs as we’re directed to do them.
Q: Is there a message you want to get out about public lands and what the public can do to protect them?
A: Just be responsible. And if you’re using public lands, remember there isn’t anyone to come by and clean up after you. Be responsible, take pride in public lands and do what’s right. Stay on trails, pick up trash and enjoy yourself.
I think there’s a misconception that the forest service owns the lands we manage. They’re public lands, the public owns the lands and we manage them. If you don’t like what’s happening on your national forest, get involved. That’s where you can help.