OGDEN — The state's controversial push to tweak roadless protections on U.S. Forest Service land across Utah would not impact the roadless swath of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest closest to the Upper Ogden Valley in Weber County.
The roadless designation on U.S. Forest Service land in eastern Weber County, however, would be subject to the proposed change, decried by environmentalists but meant, ostensibly, to make it easier to build roads in forests to counter the threat of fires. So, too, would most roadless swaths of federal forest land across the state, judging by a map provided by Utah's Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, which is spearheading the effort.
Weber County representatives said Tuesday they are still digesting the state proposal, submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture last Thursday. State environmentalists, however, have been quick to denounce the proposed changes, saying, if accepted, they would potentially lead to more roads and exploitation of natural resources on impacted land.
The change "would open up our forests to increased road building, commercial logging and more industrial development under the pretense of wildfire mitigation," Salt Lake City-based Save Our Canyons, formed to protect the state's natural terrain, said in a statement.
Utah is home to some 8.18 million acres of Forest Service land and 4.01 million acres of that it is designated roadless, which restricts road construction to protect undeveloped areas. State officials seek changes to roadless rules as they pertain to Utah, however, so Forest Service officials have more leeway to build roadways to areas that might otherwise be inaccessible.
"The state hopes that additional tools placed in the hands of the U.S. Forest Service will help alleviate the risk of unwanted wildfires, habitat degradation, and other problems becoming more common in Utah’s forests," the state said in a notice on its proposal. More specifically, if Forest Service officials can build more roads, they can more easily treat forests impacted by insect infestations and access excessive overgrowth to thin it out, minimizing the possibility of fires.
Weber County commissioners debated the state's proposal last November as officials fine-tuned their proposal. Ultimately, they sent a letter to Kathleen Clarke, director of the Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, indicating they didn't have enough information to properly weigh in.
"Give us the science and we'll give you a better answer," Charlie Ewert, principal planner in the Weber County Planning Division, said Tuesday. He helped commissioners in formulating a response to the state.
Forest Service officials "should be vested with all tools necessary" to safeguard forests, the three commissioners said in the Dec. 19 letter to Clarke. But they also expressed interest in more information on the condition of forests here and measures currently allowed to deal with problematic forests.
More specifically, they asked for "relevant science, data and best management practices, prior to any formal decision being made on this matter."
IMPACT TO WEBER COUNTY
The state's Feb. 28 notice on the proposed rule changes noted that it incorporated the requests of officials from individual counties in the final proposal.
The notice didn't single out Weber County, but the final proposal doesn't seek change in the rule as applicable to the roadless section of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest between North Ogden and Eden in the Upper Ogden Valley. The state does, however, seek change in how it is applied to a roadless section of forest further east in Weber County, in the Monte Cristo area.
Kimbal Wheatley, active in Ogden Valley GEM, a grassroots group of residents and property owners from the Upper Ogden Valley, hadn't yet reviewed the proposal submitted by the state. But he expressed support for the commissioners' Dec. 19 request for more detailed information from the state backing its proposed change.
Like many from the state'e environmental groups, he worries that the change, if it goes forward, would put the ever-declining quantity of pristine land at increased risk of development and exploitation.
"We don't have much of it as is," he said.
Even if the rules wouldn't be applicable to at least part of Weber County, Tim Peterson with the Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental group, worries about the potential impact of the proposed rule change to areas around Bear Lake.
"The state is proposing to allow salvage logging and clear-cutting along the road through Logan Canyon to Bear Lake and in the Lakes and High Uintas roadless area(s) that are very popular with Weber County residents," he said.