As Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. inches closer to presenting the state's roadless forest petition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, opposition is mounting to his proposal, which calls for a repeal of all roadless forest protection in Utah.
Now, it is hunters, anglers and former state wildlife officials who are raising red flags.
Bill Geer, a former director of Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources, says the petition Huntsman and his Public Lands Policy Coordination Office are planning to submit gives little or no regard to the impact that repealing all roadless forest protections will have on the state's big game herds and native fish populations.
"It's unfortunate that the needs of hunters and anglers seem to have been ignored in the creation of this petition," said Geer, now a policy initiative manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "Hopefully, the governor will see the merits of keeping roadless land roadless and considerably edit his petition to include the interests of sportsmen."
Utah has 8 million acres of national forest lands; about 4 million acres have been inventoried as roadless by the U.S. Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture.
Critics of the Huntsman petition argue that lifting the roadless designation eventually will fragment habitat that is vital for deer, elk and cutthroat trout, among other species.
According to Geer, 80 percent of the state's roadless forest acreage contains critical elk habitat and 96 percent is critical habitat for mule deer. And he notes that nearly all the streams and lakes supporting self-sustaining populations of Bonneville and Colorado cutthroat trout in Utah are in roadless or wilderness areas.
Says Dale Hepworth, a retired state regional fisheries manager: "The amount of remoteness we have [in roadless areas] is really critical to maintaining the quality of our fisheries. If you cross that threshold, you lose it."
In his draft petition, Huntsman seeks to lift the roadless designation from all roadless areas in the state's six major national forests, a classification Utah officials have criticized as needlessly restrictive and a burden on the state's rural economy. Under the Utah petition, the state would rely on the Forest Service's planning process for land-use decisions. The goal: to open up more of the forest for multiple use, including timber and energy development.
"We don't need to categorically exclude tens of thousands of acres from ever having a road there," says Lynn Stevens, director of the state's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office. "The declaration of roadlessness, no matter how the English language is torqued around it, is de facto wilderness."
Utah leaders say they also seek increased input in those forest land-use decisions and have called for the creation of advisory boards comprising county and state officials with whom Forest Service staffers would consult.
Utah's petition contrasts sharply with those of surrounding states, which have mostly requested that the Department of Agriculture maintain roadless forest protections for all or most of their national forest lands inventoried as roadless and protected under the Clinton administration's 2001 Roadless Forest Rule.
Only Wyoming also is actively seeking to overturn the roadless designation. Idaho, which was originally a roadless opponent, has done an about-face.
Idaho Gov. Jim Risch, who submitted his state's roadless petition to the Department of Agriculture earlier this month, has proposed that more than 3 million roadless acres be protected as "wildland recreation" or "primitive" areas, with stricter protections than are currently in place. Another 5.5 million acres, classified as "backcountry," would largely follow the Clinton rule, meaning there would be exceptions to allow for "forest health" logging projects and the creation of temporary roads.
Risch's petition was at least a partial reflection of the importance of outdoor recreation to Idaho's economy. Steve Schmidt, owner of Western Rivers Fly Fishing in Salt Lake City, says Huntsman ought to take note.
"My livelihood depends greatly on clean water and great places to fish," says Schmidt, citing estimates that anglers contribute $750 million annually to the Utah economy. "Allowing development or road construction into these last, best places would be very bad for the sport-fishing economy of our state."
The roadless forest rule is currently in a state of flux. After repealing the Clinton rule last year, the Bush administration was challenged in court by California, Oregon, Washington and New Mexico. A California judge last September overturned the Bush policy, ruling it did not follow federal environmental laws, and reinstated the Clinton rule.
Huntsman, who originally planned to submit Utah's petition last month, pulled it back in the wake of that decision. Stevens told county commissioners last week that Utah probably will proceed in submitting its petition, but under another process known as the Administrative Procedures Act.