Roadless Rule: Protecting Utah’s Backcountry


The Roadless Rule: Protecting Utah’s Backcountry

Mount Paele landscape Roadless Rule

Photo Credit: image: Manti-La Sal NF – Mt_Peale_IRA_(c)_Tim_Peterson

The state of Utah is currently working to roll back protections on millions of acres of public land covered by the Roadless Rule, which puts this land at risk for logging, mining, and other commercial interests. Utahns care about their public lands, and talks of reducing protection of our precious outdoor spaces are troublesome.

The deregulation of roadless areas is one of the most important debate topics in Utah right now, as its outcomes have far-reaching effects on the future of our environment, and the fragile plant and animal life that call our state home. We are bringing you up to speed on the Roadless Rule, and Utah’s petition for exemption from it.


For almost 20 years, over four million acres of National Forest land in Utah have been protected by the Roadless Rule, which prohibits the construction of new roads, the maintenance, and reconstruction of old roads, and the harvesting of timber. In a sense, the 2001 creation of Roadless Rule gave Utah back its backcountry.

The 2001 Roadless Rule establishes prohibitions on road construction, road reconstruction, and timber harvesting on 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas on National Forest System lands. The intent of the 2001 Roadless Rule is to provide lasting protection for inventoried roadless areas within the National Forest System in the context of multiple-use management.

-United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service

The footprint of those protected lands touches the entire state: stretching north from the Idaho border to Washington County in the South, and as far east as Daggett County near the Colorado border. At its inception, then-President Bill Clinton said, “Today, we launch one of the largest preservation efforts in America’s history to protect these priceless, backcountry lands.” It was a huge victory that showcased the importance of human intervention to protect backcountry lands. In his book, Roadless Rules: The Struggle for the Last Wild Forests, Tom Turner wrote,

The campaign for the Roadless Rule has been the most extensive national environmental campaign yet waged in the United States, combining grass-roots organizing in nearly every state; massive infusions of philanthropic support; support from hunters and anglers, religious leaders, scientists, and the outdoor recreation industry; relentless lobbying of Congress and the executive branch; and complex and extremely long-lived litigation that kept the rule in place in the face of hostile opposition.

Elk in the Little Creek Inventoried Roadless Area

Photo Credit: Elk in the Little Creek Inventoried Roadless Area – Fishlake NF (c) Tim Peterson


In February 2019, the state of Utah filed a petition for exemption from the Roadless Rule. The removal of those protections would mean a nearly 90% reduction in those protected lands, affecting nearly every county in the state: areas that support at-risk species with high levels of biodiversity. These lands have been allowed to stay pristine and largely sheltered from the destructive forces of human beings thanks to this rule. Native species of plants and animals have been able to thrive in their natural habitat, without spoliation.

Utah’s political leaders argue that rolling back these rules will reduce the risk of wildfire with proactive forest management, but many conversationists see it simply as an opportunity to sell rights for mining and logging. In its petition, Utah’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office supports the creation of a Utah-specific Roadless Rule that allows for the proper management of forests, which in some areas have become unhealthy and overgrown since the declaration of the Roadless Rule, posing a significant risk for wildfires. The petition does not request allowances for commercial logging or new recreational roads.

The petition states, “…the Roadless Rule has prevented the Forest Service from using the tools they need to promote the healthy, resilient forests that the Roadless Rule was meant to protect. Some Inventoried roadless areas are plagued by bark-beetle infestations, excessive underbrush, and overgrown timber. These conditions can lead to catastrophic wildfires that damage Utah’s air quality, watersheds, and wildlife habitat.”

Opponents argue that Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments have already seen their boundaries cut significantly in the last two years, and the proposed removal of the Roadless Rule would result in the loss of nearly twice the amount of land that the current president’s administration removed from those monuments. It’s a massive number—just under four million acres.

Fishlake with Fall foliage Roadless Rule protected

Photo Credit: Bullion-Delano IRA – Fishlake NF – (c) Ray Bloxham


Six public hearings were held across the state in fall 2018, during which individuals could learn more about the petition and voice their concerns. At this point in time, there is no public involvement opportunity, as the petition is pending. Any comments from the public can go through the office of the US Secretary of Agriculture.

If the petition is accepted, there would be significant engagement with the community, and thorough environmental analysis through the National Environmental Policy Act Review Process (NIPA). A representative from the Public Policy Coordinating Office noted that there was some confusion during the public hearings about whether the potential acceptance of the petition would change the management authority for those public lands. There would, in fact, be no change to that authority; the management would remain in the authority of the US Forest Service and there would be no state management. However, that office does hope to work together with the US Forest Service to accomplish mutual goals.

Circleville Mountain during Fall

Photo Credit: Circleville Mtn IRA – Fishlake NF (c) Tim Peterson – LightHawk


Since the February filing of the Roadless Rule Petition, there’s been little movement towards a resolution due to a reprioritization of another initiative. In May 2018, Governor Gary Herbert and US Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, signed a Shared Stewardship state and federal offices to protect at-risk communities and precious watersheds. Because of this shift in focus, the Roadless Rule petition is still in pending status with the USDA.

Of course, there are multiple points of view on the topic, but it remains that these suggested cuts do not sit well with many Utahns. Utah’s wild spaces are a valuable resource to the state’s ecology and recreation, and our intervention on their behalf, through legislation, coordination, and preservation, is paramount to their survival. Perhaps there is some compromise that can happen with this petition, as state and federal forest management work together to improve forest health and give Forest Service professionals more opportunities to protect Utah’s air, water, and wildlife.

Fishlake landscape with Utah Red rock mountains

Photo Credit: Fishlake NF – Wayne Wonderland IRA (c) Tim Peterson

Learn More About The Roadless Rule

Roadless Rule Petition from Utah’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office.

Our Forests from Utah’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office ourforests.

“Timeline of the The Roadless Rule.” from Earth Justice.

Roadless Rules: The Struggle for the Last Wild Forests. By Tom Turner

“Roadless Area Conservation”: How the Roadless Rule’ Affects America’s Forestland”
By Alison S. Hoyt
Tulane Environmental Law Journal


About Author

Heather was born and raised in northern Utah, and considers the mountains to be her home. She received a bachelor’s degree in English literature and Italian language from the University of Utah, and works for UofU Health. When she has free time, you can find her traveling, cooking, practicing yoga, rock climbing, or exploring the hiking trails and ski runs in her native state.

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