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Utah’s Battle Over the Roadless Rule

For Two Decades, the Roadless Rule Has Protected Nearly 4 Mllion Acres in Utah

No roads run through “Wayne Wonderland,” a red-rock maze of deep canyons, monoliths and stark buttes in south-central Utah’s Fishlake National Forest. The same holds for sections of the high alpine lakes, aspen and pine forests, and snowy peaks of the High Uintas mountains. This is thanks to the U.S. Forest Service’s two-decade old roadless rule, which bans construction and logging on nearly 60 million national forest acres across the country, including some of Utah’s most remote and rugged areas. Conservationists regard the roadless rule as a landmark piece of environmental policy, preserving what remains of the agency’s relatively undeveloped land.

But the state of Utah has always disliked the rule, and now it wants out. In a petition to the Department of Agriculture released in early March, Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert’s administration requested a new roadless rule that would weaken restrictions on logging and road building on more than 4 million acres of national forest in the state. The roadless rule changes would vary according to county preferences, which are included in the petition.

According to Herbert’s administration, the roadless rule puts Utah at greater risk for wildfire by preventing the removal of dead trees and thick plant growth built up over many years.

The state began assembling the petition last fall, following one of Utah’s worst wildfire seasons in years, during which hundreds of thousands of acres and dozens of homes burned. But an analysis by The Wilderness Society shows that 90 percent of Utah land that burned from 2013 to 2017 was outside the roadless rule areas, and scientific evidence suggests that road-building in Western forests is associated with high risk of human-caused fires. And as noted by Mark Brunson, environment professor at Utah State University, the petition ignores wildfire’s ecological role in restoring nutrients to the soil and promoting healthy ecosystems.

Conservation groups argue that the state has an ulterior motive for its petition: to undercut federal oversight of public land. Over the past few decades, Utah has emerged as one of the most visible and zealous opponents of federal land management. Shortly after President Donald Trump’s election, Herbert’s administration sent his transition team a document, obtained by Pacific Standard last year, detailing a veritable Christmas list of land-transfer policies, including an overhaul of the Antiquities Act of 1906 and the National Environmental Policy Act. Several of Utah’s requests, including reductions in size to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, have already been fulfilled. Also included in the document was the complete elimination of the roadless rule and a directive to “reinstate timber production on federal land” that had been previously prohibited by it.

With its arid climate and slow-growing trees, Utah lacks a vibrant logging industry. “There are no industrial forestlands or big sawmill companies operating in Utah,” said Darren McAvoy, a Utah State University professor in the wildlands resources department. But that doesn’t matter to the Herbert administration, said Tim Petersen, cultural landscapes program director for the Grand Canyon Trust, who called the petition an ideological move, a part of the larger political project to increase state control of federal land.

Utah boasts a long history of subverting federal public-land policy, predating the current administration and Cliven Bundy’s 2014 armed standoff over grazing on federal land. Four decades ago, Utah farmers and ranchers figured prominently in the Sagebrush Rebellion movement to transfer public lands to state and private control, and since then, local and state activists have joined natural resource industries in fighting federal oversight. The roadless rule petition fits into the Trump administration’s recent trend of giving states greater land management authority, rather than engaging in outright land-transfer efforts. Public-lands advocates say the result is effectively the same.

“This is another in the step for state and county control over public lands,” Petersen said. “They’ve been pretty direct about that.”

Nick Bowlin is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email him at or submit a letter to the editor.

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