OGDEN — Gov. Gary Herbert will be petitioning the feds to tweak the guidelines in Utah governing roadless areas on U.S. Forest Service land in the state, including the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest in Weber County.
The effort aims mainly to enable the state to thin out forest overgrowth via temporary roads extending to areas that would otherwise be tough to access, per U.S. Forest Service road restrictions. Such preventive action can head-off catastrophic wildfires, though allowing road access can be a touchy issue for some environmentalists leery of allowing vehicles in pristine zones.
"Better access can enable heavier equipment to be used to clear out dead timber," Charles Ewert, principal planner in the Weber County Planning Division, said in a Nov. 7 report to Weber County commissioners. "The state is not looking for unregulated road building in these roadless areas, but rather the ability to build a road for forest management purposes, and in most cases, remove and reclaim the road in a natural state."
But the plans — focus of a public hearing in Ogden on Tuesday — have some in Weber County nervous. They worry the change, if allowed, could somehow be harnessed in connection with the proposed expansion of the Nordic Valley ski resort in the Eden area, focus of intense debate in North Ogden and the Upper Ogden Valley. Nordic Valley revealed a proposal last June to add more ski runs and build a gondola connecting North Ogden and the ski resort to the east, over the mountain and across a roadless U.S. Forest Service area.
It may not be Herbert's intent, said Meg Sanders, a North Ogden woman who's been particularly critical of Nordic Valley's plans, worried of their impact on pristine forest land. But allowing roads in roadless areas, she maintains, will "let ski resorts expand and move onto these areas." Roads, she said, make it easier to access areas to develop new ski runs and to place posts for ski lifts.
Indeed, Weber County planning officials had earlier proposed asking the state to include a reference to ski resorts in its broader proposal to tweak guidelines governing roadless areas, Ewert said. The general aim, according to his office's Nov. 7 report, which specifically referenced Nordic Valley's plans, would have been to "proactively reduce the hurdles of a potential ski area expansion."
The proposed provision, however, didn't gain traction among planning commission officials, Ewert emphasized. And in the end, the ski resort reference was pulled from the changes Weber County is considering related to the state's push to change guidelines in roadless areas.
Tuesday's public hearing, held by the Weber County Commission, starts at 5:30 p.m. and will be held at commission chambers in the Weber Center, 2380 Washington Blvd., Ogden. Planning staffers recommend approval by commissioners of a resolution amending county planning documents in line with the state's proposal.
IMPROVING FOREST HEALTH
Herbert advised the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a May 24 letter that Utah would petition the agency for change in management of inventoried roadless areas, the more formal designation of forest sectors where road development faces rigorous restrictions. The USDA oversees the U.S. Forest Service.
Creating access to thin out unhealthy tree growth, thus heading off massive wildfires would be one aim, while battling bark-beetle infestations would be another, according to Utah officials. As the Utah proposal is written, it would permit temporary road construction and commercial harvest of timber "for forest health reasons only."
At any rate, Ewert wouldn't expect much impact locally.
"As we got looking into this, I never got the sense there would be many roads," he said. "And remember, they'd all be temporary."
He also rebuffed concerns that the state's proposal, if approved by the feds, would result in runaway logging.
"Some are purporting that this allowance is going to raze the forests, ruin wildlife habitat and destroy watershed. This would run contrary to the state's reason for the rule, which is to improve forest health to better support all of the natural systems," he said.
Drafting of a state petition could take up to 18 months, according to Herbert's office, and the overall process could take three to five years.