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Our favorite stories about public lands and opportunities for you to get involved in protecting your outdoor experiences.


Utah Wants Its Own Roadless Rule, Which Could Mean Changes For Backcountry Recreation

Guest Contributor

Wasatch-Cache National Forest in Utah, where outstanding backcountry recreation is currently protected by the Roadless Rule.

Wasatch-Cache National Forest in Utah, where outstanding backcountry recreation is currently protected by the Roadless Rule.

By Tom Diegel

Tom Diegel has been backcountry skiing and otherwise recreating in Utah for 20 years and built and sold a business based on that experience.  He’s the vice president of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance.  

The Roadless Rule was created in 2001 as a way to “provide lasting protection in the context of multiple-use management” for the 60 million acres of roadless areas on our National Forests. It was created after historic public outreach (the most public comments at that time, ever) and limited timber and road building on “backcountry” areas on our National Forests.

It provides protection for landscapes while still allowing for a lot of access and leeway for outdoor activities, including hiking, climbing, mountain biking, and more.

There have been a number of threats to the Roadless Rule in recent years, most recently in Alaska, but now Utah is following suit. In October, the state of Utah announced that it would petition the U.S. Forest Service for a Utah-specific Roadless Rule. A few other states (including Colorado and Idaho) have done this, and these Rules have mostly turned out well. Utah’s goal for getting a state-specific Rule is less clear. Though they have mentioned wildfire suppression interests and the need for new road building, it may also lead to timber or oil and gas development.

On October 23, I attended a public meeting in Salt Lake City organized by the county, to hear more about the state’s plans for the Roadless Rule. Each county has been tasked to recommend a category of use for roadless areas. The categories the state has suggested, as far as we could tell, were all the same or less protective than the current Roadless Rule so mostly this would mean downgrading protection on a lot of lands that are valuable to people who love outdoor recreation.

The timeline seems rushed. The counties are charged with delivering their recommendations by November 1, which is both awfully close to the only public meeting and to the election. The state is putting together a stakeholder group (which it didn’t share much information about) and planning to file its official petition with the Forest Service in early 2019. It seemed that the folks attending the meeting were generally supportive of the existing Roadless Rule and continued protections for Utah’s backcountry, and it was unnerving to see the state trying to take over without fair input from locals. A lot of us are guessing that some developers are seeing this as an “in” to resource extraction or development in the canyons or other public lands around the state.

The Governor’s office spokesperson was gamely trying to justify what they were doing to a lot of skeptical folks attending the meeting, mentioning wildfire suppression and beetle kill to remove dead timber. These are admirable goals but it’s not clear why the states should be the experts on forest health instead of local Forest Service offices, and nearly all of Utah’s forest fires have been caused by human activity…near existing roads.  As it is, the local USFS office approved all 34 exemptions that were applied for by local forest managers, so it is unclear why the state feels compelled to formally take control of the forests other than their ongoing obsession with state ownership and management of all of the federal lands within Utah’s borders. 

In a conversation with a Forest Service employee, I mentioned that it struck me that Utah’s Congressional delegation, including Sen. Hatch, Sen. Lee, and Reps. Chaffetz and Bishop have a good strategy of joining with their counterparts to starve the Forest Service so that they don’t have enough resources to address things like wildfires effectively, and then they call up state officials to encourage them to propose “helping” the Forest Service, since they are so starved.  The Forest Service official ruefully and tactfully said that my observation was surprisingly accurate. 

Overall, while state-specific rules can work really well, Utah seems motivated more by resource extraction and road building than it does by improving public lands management.