Summit County Council still at odds over Utah-specific roadless rule
The Summit County Council is still at odds over a petition Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s office is preparing that asks the U.S. Forest Service for a state-specific version of the federal rule regarding roadless areas, with County Councilor Roger Armstrong joining others who say the proposal is unnecessary and weakens current restrictions.
Elected officials met on Wednesday to discuss the recommendations for the current roadless areas within the county and consider whether they should be reclassified as part of the new petition. The federal roadless rule, established in 2001, prohibits the construction of roads and timber harvesting on 58.5 million acres within the national forests. Idaho and Colorado are the only other states with rules specific to the national forests within its boundaries. The U.S. Forest Service is currently working with Alaska to establish similar regulations.
The governor’s office argues that more active forest management is needed to allow the Forest Service to protect against catastrophic wildfires. Summit County has been asked to review the roadless areas within its jurisdiction and designate them under one of four categories: primitive, forest restoration, forest stewardship or an area that should be removed from the roadless rule.
Armstrong has been weary of the proposal from the beginning, questioning the state’s motives for the petition. He said on Wednesday that he does not support it. He requested the county withdraw from the process.
“The roadless rule is a federal classification, and they have the ability to go through the same process to adjust that rule,” he said. “I don’t support it. I think we should send a letter instead to maintain the status quo. Although we recognize changes need to be made to allow for forest management, I don’t think this is the way to do it.”
Several environmental groups, including Save Our Canyons, Sierra Club Utah Chapter and The Wilderness Society, are also urging the county not to participate in or support the effort to overturn the federal rule.
A letter the groups sent to the County Council on Oct. 23 outlined their concerns. The letter claims the proposal will open protected areas to practices such as logging, mining, oil and gas drilling and other forms of development. It also alleges the proposal is being developed without public participation.
Park City resident Peter Gatch, who attended the meeting on Wednesday, questioned why the public is not being actively engaged in the process. He said the current roadless rule is working so, “Why try to fix something that isn’t broken?”
“I wonder if a motivating goal on our state’s attack is because our state wants to chip away control of Utah’s federal lands,” he said.
Marion Klaus, a Park City resident and member of the Sierra Club, said on Wednesday she also supports upholding the current rule. She highlighted the importance of fire in a natural ecosystem and how it can actually help improve the health of the forest.
Staffers are recommending all of the county’s areas be labeled as forest restoration or primitive wilderness areas. Neither designation would allow for the creation of new roads unless there are existing leases or claims for extractive purposes. A letter is currently being drafted to the state. The County Council will meet in a special meeting on Nov. 5 to review the county’s proposal.
The rest of the County Council is on board with the county submitting a proposal to the state, supporting the county’s active involvement. Deputy County Manager Janna Young said, “We don’t want to change anything that is already allowed and we don’t want any unintended consequences.”
Council Chair Kim Carson said her biggest concern is what could happen to the watershed if a major wildfire were to occur.
County Councilor Doug Clyde said it’s clear just by looking out into the surrounding forest that the state is unable to manage it, and if the watersheds burn, the consequences will be extreme. But, he also noted that the state’s proposal would still be vetted before it is approved.
“The concept that we are making an environmental decision is specious,” he said. “That would be made at the federal level. We are not even rule making. We are a step below that. An environmental analysis will ultimately determine what will happen.”
Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, said on Wednesday the organization wants to be a partner in managing the health of forests. But, members oppose the “blanket approach” and reinvention of the roadless rule.
“Rolling back these protections is a very dangerous route to go and will polarize issues,” he said.
Fisher sent an email to County Council members on Thursday, expressing his disappointment with the direction elected officials are taking.
“All the analysis and justifications, even from Summit County staff as many of you acknowledged last night, is quite superficial and unrepresentative of the complexities our forest ecosystems,” the email read.
Meredith Reed was elected to a two-year term as chair of the Summit County Democratic Party and said she sees an opportunity to ride the so-called blue wave that saw a Democratic surge nationally and within the state.