OGDEN — The state’s push to revamp U.S. Forest Service roadless rules in Utah generated a slew of questions and concerns at a hearing held by Weber County commissioners.
The aim of the proposed change, spearheaded by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, is to create new mechanisms to protect Forest Service lands in the state, notably to aid in fighting fires. But some in Weber County, speaking out at the hearing Tuesday, worry the change — including increased leeway, potentially, in installing temporary roads in forested areas — would mar pristine land.
“Once you put a road in there, it’s going to be in there pretty much indefinitely,” said Alan Wheelwright of Eden.
That was a common refrain at the meeting — concern about allowing something that can’t be undone. That officials say a road will be temporary, said Meg Sanders of North Ogden, “isn’t a guarantee.”
Miranda Menzies, also of Eden, said many fires are human caused, not necessarily the result of forest overgrowth, and argued that the proposed changes would have limited impact, only affecting “things around the fringes.”
Allowing temporary roads, proponents of the change say, would give access to remote land, allowing for thinning of overgrowth, which can serve as fuel in a forest fire. But Menzies said new roads could actually increase the possibility of fires because of the specter of sparks from vehicles on the pathways.
“My concern is building roads is going to increase the fire danger, not reduce it,” she said.
Others expressed concern about erosion and landslides if forests were thinned and the possibility of unauthorized motorized vehicles on temporary roads, like motorcycles or snowmobiles.
About 50 people attended Tuesday’s hearing, and commissioners listened, referring questions to some of the state and federal experts on hand, but took no formal action.
Redge Johnson with Utah’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, there on behalf of state officials pushing for the change, emphasized that the aim of the change wouldn’t be for permanent roads.
“We’re just trying to give (Forest Service officials) a tool when they see fit,” Johnson said. Any roads put in would be removed as soon as feasible, he said, though he acknowledged that permanent roads could be built on an “extremely limited” basis.
The U.S. Forest Service‘s roadless rules, established in 2001, sets out prohibitions on road construction in federal forests as a protection to undeveloped areas. In Utah, 4.01 million acres of the 8.18 million acres of U.S. Forest Service land are designated roadless, including portions of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest in Weber County. The state of Utah is seeking changes to the rules applicable only within the state and Johnson said they’ve been in the works for about a year.
As part of its push, the state of Utah is asking Weber County — and other counties with Forest Service land — for input on the proposal, which precipitated Tuesday’s hearing. The state’s draft proposal, which could take several years to finalize, would create four categories of inventoried roadless areas in Utah, each allowing varying levels of road development.
Sean Harwood, the Ogden district ranger for the Forest Service, the actual manager of the land in question, expressed a measure of support for change.
“It’s an extra tool. It’s something we can always use,” he said. In removing temporary roads, he said the biggest issue “is keeping people off of them.”