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SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is coming to Utah this week and will meet with Gov. Gary Herbert to discuss multiple issues, including the state's desire for a roadless rule specific to Utah and the formalization of a stewardship agreement with the U.S. Forest Service.
Herbert and Perdue will spend most of the day together Wednesday, kicking things off with a meeting, talks over breakfast, a Tooele County tour of a watershed restoration project, lunch and a tour of Welfare Square operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As head of the agriculture department, Perdue oversees the management of the nation's forests. In Utah, there are 8.1 million forested acres, of which more than 4 million are designated and managed as roadless.
The 2001 Roadless Rule, according to the U.S. Forest Service, establishes prohibitions on road construction, road reconstruction and timber harvesting on 58.5 million acres of inventoried forest lands across the country.
Utah is following the lead of Alaska, which in 2018 successfully received approval of its petition to the U.S. Forest Service for the agency to begin developing a specific roadless rule plan for the Tongass National Forest.
Any new rule or update requires an environmental review process, and the state's petition to change what is on the books has prompted outcry and objection from multiple organizations.
In a briefing to lawmakers last week, the head of the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, Kathleen Clarke, said Utah's petition was submitted at the end of February and is awaiting action by the U.S. Forest Service.
Perdue's visit is a good sign, she added, in her presentation to the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee.
“I think it is a very solid petition," Clarke said. "There is a lot of rumor out there. There are a lot of accusations of it taking over management, which it does not do," she said.
Utah's desire for the roadless rule alteration comes in the aftermath of a record-breaking wildfire season in 2018 that cost the state more than $42 million in funding to quell.
In a video presented to the legislative committee, Clarke's office detailed the specific motivation for seeking a Utah specific rule, citing the need to update the 18-year-old management structure that fails to keep pace with modern challenges of drought, climate change and rampant insect infestation killing millions of trees.
"Utah is not scheming to put more roads in forests," the narrator said, adding it is only asking for an updated rule that encompasses Utah's conditions that may differ from the rest of the nation.
But there are plenty of critics who say Utah's move for a modification of the rule is unnecessary and suspect, prompting some to threaten lawsuits or lobby personally in Washington, D.C.
Trout Unlimited sent Andy Rasmussen, the organization's Utah coordinator of the Sportsmen's Conservation Project, and Heidi Lewis, chairwoman of the Women's Initiative Council, and others to the nation's capital on Friday to press its case on keeping the current roadless rule intact.
"Trout Unlimited feels like it should not change and that we can work things out with programs already in place," Lewis said. "Ultimately if you put roads in, you can't remove them."
Lewis added that Utah's prized Blue Ribbon fisheries would be threatened via changes to the roadless rule management.
The group met personally with Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and staffers with other members of Utah's delegation.
"It was surprisingly positive," he said. "They are definitely open to a path forward that does not include" a revision of the rule, Rasmussen said, stressing that Utah's petition is especially concerning because it is so vague.
Rasmussen added the organization believes a better solution, and less costly one, would be an administrative agreement between Utah and the Forest Service, rather than wholesale makeover of the rule.
"I am with the governor on the goals as far as forest health and resiliency," he said, but added there should be an agreement that "maintains the integrity of the roadless rule and still addresses (Utah) concerns."
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Heidi Lewis as Heidi Rasmussen