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Utah, US Secretary of Agriculture ink pact to protect wild lands, push still on to change roadless rules

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SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, visiting Salt Lake City on Wednesday, doesn’t buy into the idea that leaving forests alone is the best way to protect them.

He came to Utah to ink an accord with Gov. Gary Herbert that calls for cooperative efforts in managing wild lands, and after signing the agreement he alluded to the “mythical idea” of “pristine forest just left untouched.” He was responding to a query about federal efforts to take care of forestland, to prevent forest fires.

Rather, keeping forests healthy and mitigating the threat of fire — the aim of a separate Utah request to Perdue’s office for change making it easier to build roads on U.S. Forest Service land — takes a concerted human effort.

“Managed forests are healthy forests,” Perdue said. “What we’re talking about are managing these forests in a healthy way that reduces the threat of wild land fire while also producing better watersheds, better water quality, better wildlife.”

The Shared Stewardship Agreement, signed by Herbert and Perdue at a ceremony at the Utah Capitol, is their step in that direction, calling for joint efforts between the feds and Utah to identify “priority landscapes” in Utah in need of restoration. It’s similar to an accord the federal government has with Idaho, according to the text of that agreement.

It echoes the state’s controversial request for change to the federal roadless rule designation currently applicable to 4.01 million of 8.18 million acres of Forest Service land in Utah, including swaths in Weber and Utah counties. And Herbert used Wednesday’s ceremony to defend that request, which has come under fire from environmentalists and outdoor recreationists, worried it could lead to road development in pristine forest land.

Allowing for more road development — ostensibly enabling the Forest Service to access remote areas and clear away overgrowth, potential fuel in a forest fire — gives Forest Service officials “extra tools in their toolbox to manage forests,” Herbert said.

Perdue said only that representatives from the Forest Service, which operates within the USDA, are reviewing Utah’s request to change the roadless rules. “Utah has applied and we in the Forest Service have the obligation to look at that,” Perdue said.

‘CONFIDENTIAL AND PRIVILEGED’

But Wednesday’s ceremony elicited renewed criticism from environmentalists, worried changes to the roadless rule designation could lead not only to roads but to timber exploitation as well.

The sort of collaboration outlined in the Shared Stewardship Agreement “makes sense,” said Ken Rait, project director out of Portland, Oregon, for a public lands and rivers conservation initiative of Pew Charitable Trusts. There seems to be a “good level of commitment” between the state and the feds to address land issues.

The push for change to roadless rules, however, which first went into effect in 2001, is misguided, he says. “We just find the state is overstating the issue as it relates to roadless areas,” Rait said.

Significantly, the agreement signed Wednesday seems “sufficiently broad” to address the range of wild land issues that may emerge in Utah. Likewise, terms of the Forest Services’ roadless rules, as written, already allow for wiggle room in their implementation, underscored, he maintains, by the 23 special projects approved in roadless areas of Utah in 2016 and 2017, some for fire mitigation.

An analysis by Pew Charitable Trusts, Rait went on, found that the forested zones with an elevated fire risk near population clusters account for just 1% of Utah’s roadless areas. “The roadless areas are not where the problem is and the roadless rule is not where the problem is,” he said.

Tim Peterson, the cultural landscapes program director for the Grand Canyon Trust, hopes Utah and the feds can reach some sort of accord to address their concerns without touching the roadless rules. In fact, fixes to mitigate fire concerns, he maintains, are best done at the local level, by individual property owners who live adjacent to Forest Service land.

“The real work needs to happen in the wild lands-interurban interface,” he said. The Grand Canyon Trust is another environmental group critical of Utah’s request for changes to the roadless rules.

Indeed, in seeking the roadless rule changes, Rait charged that the state is motivated by something else — benefiting the timber industry. He pointed to a 2016 document labeled “confidential and privileged” that was prepared by Utah’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, or PLPCO, which is pushing for the change in the roadless rule. The Grand Canyon Trust posted the document on its website.

The document, outlining Utah policy objectives for 2017 related to federal land management, charges that some undesignated federal land is incorrectly being managed as “wilderness,” wrongly limiting how it can be used. One of the remedies, it continues, would be doing away with the roadless rule. “Revoke the Forest Service’s roadless rule and reinstate timber production on federal land that has been managed as special areas or roadless areas,” it reads, in part.

State leaders have long rebuffed the notion that their roadless petition is meant to benefit the timber industry. If change is ultimately allowed, it would be up to the Forest Service to decide whether to harness the policy modifications. Herbert reiterated that message on Wednesday.

“This is not some kind of a backdoor approach for us to have access or to bring in (all-terrain vehicles) or other kind of uses that the Forest Service feels is inappropriate,” Herbert said.

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. Utah is asking that the roadless designation be changed on most of the 4.01 million acres, but not all of it, according to a map prepared by PLPCO.

Change, if approved, would not impact the roadless swath of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest closest to the Ogden Valley in Weber County. 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.

Much of the roadless swath of eastern Utah County would be impacted by the proposed changes, according to the map.

ESTABLISHING A FRAMEWORK

What sort of collaboration or efforts result from the accord Perdue and Herbert signed Wednesday remains to be seen. The agreement “establishes a framework” for Utah and the Forest Service to work together, reads a press release.

“We want to leave America’s forests better than we found them and that means creating meaningful stewardship partnerships that proactively keep our forests healthy,” Perdue said in a statement.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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