Guest editorial: Roadless rule must stay intact to protect forests from their biggest threat: humans
Salt Lake City
Utah has long been known for its pristine landscapes, endless recreation opportunities, stunning wildlife and natural diversity. For nearly two decades, a policy has been in effect that protects 58 million acres of National Forest across the country from having roads constructed in them, including four million acres of our own beautiful Utah forest. However, Gov. Herbert is proposing to lift this “Roadless Area Rule” for all Utah forests, saying that it will reduce the risk of wildfires and improve forest health.
However, there is no evidence showing that a forest having roads will help decrease the fire activity. In fact, roads actually increase the threat of fire, given that humans are the leading cause of wildfires. What Herbert is proposing opens the door for logging, roadbuilding, industrial development like mining, and the removal of protections that keep these clean and beautiful Utah ecosystems unharmed. Keeping our four million acres of roadless forests undeveloped is important for reducing the risk of fires, maintaining our clean drinking water, preserving areas of recreation and protecting wildlife.
Herbert’s office wrongly blames the national Roadless Rule for the significant acreage that burned in five large wildfires in 2018. And although Utah residents should rightfully be concerned about the risk of forest fire, most fires start and burn outside of Roadless Areas. Out of more than 21,000 fires that occurred in Utah between 2000 and 2015, 75 percent started outside of National Forest land (the land Herbert is targeting) and less than 10 percent originated in Roadless Areas. Nearly 90 percent of the acres burned in the last 15 years have been outside of Roadless Areas.
Adding roads to these areas will increase human activity, which in turn would increase the risk of fire and the risk of damaging important ecosystems across the state. Though in some cases fires are caused naturally by lightning, an alarming number of wildfires are not. Unfortunately, humans cause almost 85 percent of the wildfires that burn in this nation. Whether from sparks coming off of a trailer chain, ATV misuse, unattended campfires, a blown tire, a thrown cigarette or just careless grilling, these fires that threaten our homes are too often caused by our own doing, and are rarely far from a road.
Roadless Areas in Utah also help protect critical drinking water resources for over a million Utahns. Building roads and logging in these areas threatens our water, especially since the roadless policy affects not only remote lands, but areas like the Cottonwood Canyons that border Salt Lake City.
Another of Utah’s natural gifts is its wildlife. Roadless areas in Utah’s national forests provide pristine habitat for bears, elk, bighorn sheep, moose and countless other species. Keeping their habitat undisturbed helps to support a healthy hunting, fishing and wildlife tourism industry. Roadbuilding and logging would not only disrupt wildlife and their environment, but could introduce invasive plant species through out-of-area vehicles, which can often ruin a forest’s ecosystem.
Protections that are currently in place are simple: Logging and road construction is not allowed. The Roadless Rule does not place any limits on recreation. Furthermore, this rule applies to National Forest land across the country, and by altering it Herbert would be undermining what has been recognized nationally as a workable, common-sense safeguard for America’s forests for nearly 20 years.
If protecting communities from wildfire truly were the governor’s goal, there are already over 1.2 million acres of “environmentally reviewed public land” ready for “fuel reduction;” projects that would help protect fire-threatened communities. However, these projects lack funding and are currently being completed at a snail’s pace, if at all.
We should focus our state’s efforts and money into the projects that maximize the protection of our communities, while doing the least amount of harm to the natural environment. Logging, roadbuilding, and lifting restrictions on four million acres of natural roadless area will accomplish neither the protection of our communities or our natural resources. Take it from a former firefighter.
A Utah-based wildland firefighter for 5 years, Dante Giacobassi has fought fire in every western state except for Washington.
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