WASATCH N.F. PLAN "BUSINESS AS USUAL"
The Wasatch Cache National Forest Plan (WCNF Plan) is finally out! For a detailed look at HUPC's alternative, comments and alerts, please see the HUPC LYNX 10/99 and 8/01. Maps, huge documents, analyses, rationale, and justifications abound, but it is not a plan for the future. It is picture painted for right now and represents a disappointment of depth.
The Forest Service asked for detailed comments. They asked for desired future conditions. They asked for thoughtful, meaningful comments- not at the edges or extremes, but centered comments that could assist in decision making, not simply stake out prophetic claims.
Was it a mistake to believe them and respond with detailed, site specific comments and alternate proposals? Proposals that were deeply developed and not simply an all or nothing context? Proposals and recommendations that were based on sound professional literature? It looks like it. We are disturbed and embarrassed! Take a look at a few of the most visible decisions in the forest plan.
As you read this summation, please remember the forest plan states that it will incorporate the Roadless Area Conservation Rule (RACR), adopted by the Clinton Administration in January 2001 to protect roadless areas if okayed by the Courts. The rule was suspended by Bush Jr. immediately after taking office, pending litigation. In December 2002 the 9th Circuit Court reversed the lower court ruling against the RACR, essentially reinstating the RACR. On April 7, 2003, the 9th Circuit denied petitions for rehearing by the original 3-judge panel and for consideration by the whole Court. This means the Forest Service should, through the forest plan, now protect all, not some, roadless areas as soon as the decision is formally written.
The Lakes Roadless area (LRA)
HUPC: The region consists of the headwaters of the Weber and Provo Rivers and is the second largest Forest Service roadless area in Utah (see HUPC Review 4/97) Not surprisingly, the first is the main block of roadless lands surrounding the High Uintas Wilderness on both the Wasatch and Ashley National Forests. Of course, the Lakes roadless area is only separated from this roadless landscape by the 100 foot corridor of the Mirror Lake Highway and is part of the flow of the High Uintas, not a separate place.
It consists of some 120,000+ acres. Drainage by drainage our comments proceeded with reasons why about 72,000 acres of the area should be recommended as wilderness. It has no conflicts with roadlessness or ATV use and is unquestionably wild, undeveloped country. It consists of headwaters to trailhead on the North Fork Provo, Middle and Main Weber, Dry Creek, Smith Morehouse, Shingle Creek, Yellow Pine and a host of small drainages.
We knew that this would be a stretch for the Forest Service so we noted that many of the wilderness values could be secured by an alternative that focused on the previous plan's backcountry proposal, some 57,000 acres including all of the Middle and Main Weber, Smith Morehouse and N. Fork Provo drainages. One of the bell weather criteria is largeness. Areas over 50,000 acres in size that harbor whole drainages at least have the potential for a complete flow of wilderness and wild systems.
WCNForest Plan: A paltry 38,000 acres is recommended as wilderness. Even more stunning, only drainages on the Weber River side of the area-it is as though only one side of a mountain was proposed for wilderness.
But it gets even worse. The whole roadless area and proposed wilderness is left open to snowmobile use! The logic, as unbelievable as it may sound, but is offered seriously by the Forest Service, seems to be this: 'because there is so little or no snowmobile use in this area, and the Forest Service promises to do nothing to enhance this non-use (other than allow it!), and because snowmobilers who use it now want an extreme challenge and oppose the closing of any area for future use the Wasatch-Cache has decided to leave the area open!' Notwithstanding the empty logic, the agency has spoken ever so clearly out of both sides of its mouth. With a Cheshire grin, the Wasatch has really said no wilderness because, in spite of a teeny, half-mountain wilderness proposal, the whole area is open to snowmobiles.
It is the blurriest logic seen in forest planning. As an insight to this snowmobile mania, the Regional Forester writes in the Record of Decision for the forest plan that the Forest Service adopted the increased snowmobiling access on the forest because with the rapid population growth in Utah has come a significant increase in snowmobiling and thus the need to respond to it. That is motorized planning, Utah style-increased use means more opportunities means more use means more opportunities-where and when does the Forest Service begin to plan on the upper limit? How much more can be opened to snowmobiles?
27,500 acres of the Lakes Roadless Area was allocated to prescription 2.5, undeveloped areas. Same problem-open to snowmobiles. Same outcome- snowmobiling will dominate the area at some point. 38,400 acres was allocated to management prescriptions that "mostly maintain wilderness values." Same problem-open to snowmobiles, not to mention the definition of mostly. More on that later.
Clearly the Forest Service failed to understand the need to protect large areas, dismissed the wilderness and wild characteristics of the Lakes Roadless Area, made the wilderness recommendation contradictory and unclear by also leaving it open to extreme snowmobile use, and listened not to the centered positions but to the extremes!
High Uintas Roadless Area (HURA)
HUPC: The epitome of wildness. On the Wasatch-Cache National Forest this represents the North Slope of the Uintas and is about a 104,000 acre strip across the North Slope. Of course, it is part and parcel and contiguous to the High Uintas Wilderness and is, in fact, one roadless area across the North Slope, the eastern Bollies and the South Slope deep canyons. One continuous and contiguous roadless area adjacent to the High Uintas Wilderness equal to the 460,000 acres size of the High Uintas Wilderness!
Drainage by drainage our comments provided reasons why about 80,000 acres of the area should be recommended as wilderness. It has no conflicts with roadlessness or ATV use or questionably wild, undeveloped country. We recommended, as well, that this North Slope roadless country not be available to commercial logging, that all unleased lands be kept in that status and that all roadless lands south of the North Slope road that are presently not used by snowmobilers, the vast majority of the roadless lands, be closed to snowmobiling. In the spirit of problem solving, we suggested how the Forest Service could achieve many of these wilderness values by recommending as wilderness (in addition to the 20,000 acres in the draft forest plan), Boundary Creek, and the trailheads of the Middle Fork Blacks Fork, Middle and West Fork Beaver Creek, Thompson, Kabell and Burnt Fork.
WCNForest Plan: About 20,000 acres of this roadless area was proposed as wilderness from the East Fork Bear River east to the East Fork Blacks Fork. That's all! The best of the best, the wildest of the wild, the largest of the large, the most important of the most important to wilderness dependent species including lynx, wolverine, native cutthroat trout, boreal owls, great gray owls, goshawk, three toed woodpeckers, bighorn sheep and on and on- and that's all the Wasatch-Cache could see to do. The notable omissions are the lower reaches, the "thumb," of the Middle Fork Blacks Fork, the lower reaches and pot hole country of the Middle and West Fork Beaver Creek, one of the most isolated and wild drainages, Boundary Creek, the lower Stillwater, and the lower Thompson, Kabell and Burnt Fork areas- the latter three allocated to timber harvesting!
The forest plan does allocate an additional 13,000 acres to management prescriptions which maintain the undeveloped nature of the North Slope (the lower reaches of the Middle Black Forks and Boundary Creek, Stillwater) and another 21,500 acres to prescriptions that "mostly maintain roadless values." However the forest plan tries to flower up the language, nearly 49,000 acres of the North Slope roadless landscape is open for road building and, for all intents and purposes, so is the silly "mostly maintain" category, meaning, in plain and unhidden language, the Wasatch-Cache National Forest wants to see over 70,000 acres of the largest and truly wild roadless landscape developed. Think about that!
Of the roadless acreage, 80,100 acres on the High Uintas Roadless Area is presently open to snowmobiling and the forest plan welcomes snowmobilers on 72% of it! At least in this case, making the Lakes Roadless Area debacle even more inconsistent, the forest plan closed most of the wilderness recommendation and the other prescriptions that allocated land to an undeveloped nature (as an aside, the other proposed wilderness in the forest plan, the South Fork Ogden River, is also closed to snowmobiling), with one stunning intrusion, Cataract Basin, on the West Fork Blacks Fork, where forest decision makers spent a day snowmobiling with local snowmobilers to look at conditions!
Oil and Gas Leasing
Oil and gas leasing is a complex issue. Much of the western end of the Uintas is leased and has been under lease for decades as part of the Table Top Unit (Main Fork, Stillwater and East Fork Bear.) Proposed for drilling is a suspended lease on the Main Fork just outside of the High Uintas Wilderness. All of the forest is open to leasing north of the roadless country. One small field exists, the very old and dying Bridger Field. In spite of clear and plain evidence that oil and gas potential is slim, at best, until one gets north of the forest, the agency cuddles the oil and gas industry! As a result of our appeal by the Utah Wilderness Association, oil and gas leasing on the roadless country was postponed in the late '80s and early '90s until the forest plan was revised. That is now.
One would think, with all of the evidence that leasing is not simply a paper transaction and that the potential for oil and gas development this far south on the Uintas is close to nil, that the trusty Forest Service would simply say NO to leasing on the roadless area.
Nope. But to their credit they, at least, recommended against leasing on the 20,000 acres proposed as wilderness on the North Slope. And on 21,000 acres, mostly within the Table Top Unit, they recommend no surface occupancy for the few areas still unleased and for the whole unit as leases expire (which technically will only happen when the small independent companies either give up their leases or drill and continue to find nothing!) In other words, this decision simply perpetuates leasing in an area where exploratory well drilling will destroy roadless and wild values and never produce a drop of oil! But consider the 25,000 acres the Forest Service has proposed leasing with surface use- the lower reaches of the Middle and East Fork Blacks Fork, West Fork Beaver, Henry's Fork, Smiths Fork, Thompson Creek, and Kabell Creek. Yet not one oil and gas study has ever even remotely suggested any of these areas have any potential for oil and gas!
To summarize the roadless area issue:
High Uintas Roadless Area- 103,100 acres
The Forest Service failed to grasp the context of protecting roadless areas, especially large areas as intact whole units. The HURA is dissected by 13 different management prescriptions, a teeny, inconsequential wilderness recommendation of just over 20,000 acres and a total of only 33,000 acres (includes the wilderness recommendation) of roadless country allocated to an undeveloped status. Another 21,500 acres is allocated to prescriptions that mostly maintain roadless area values, whatever mostly implies. Nearly 49,000 acres of the HURA is within management prescriptions that call for development and loss of roadlessness. Over 70% of the HURA is open to snowmobiles. Nearly 48,000 acres is open to leasing and oil and gas development.
Lakes Roadless Area- 121,900 acres
Again, the Forest Service failed to grasp the context of protecting roadless areas, especially large areas as intact whole units. The LRA is dissected by 10 management prescriptions, a teeny, ½ mountain wilderness recommendation of 38,000 acres and a total of 65,500 acres (includes the wilderness recommendation) of roadless country allocated to an undeveloped status. Another 38,400 acres is allocated to prescriptions that mostly maintain roadless area values, whatever mostly means or implies. Some 94% of the roadless country, including all of the wilderness recommendation, is open to snowmobiling, rendering the entire area open to motorized travel.
Unfortunately, the same can be said across the whole forest. Of the 606,000 acres of roadless areas on the forest, only 188,700 acres (a paltry 31% of roadless acreage) received either a wilderness recommendation (20,600 acres on the HUW, 38,000 acres on the Lakes Roadless Area, 14,200 acres on the Upper South Fork of the Ogden River) or an undeveloped-type management prescription. Another 267,400 acres received a prescription that "mostly maintains" roadless character. So the TRUTH is that 31%, not the purported 75%, of the roadless area acreage is protected! Furthermore, few roadless areas are protected in toto, thus fragmenting the essence and effectiveness of most of the roadless area acreage on the Forest!
The final plan and EIS are hundreds of pages long. There are hopeful and distressing directions: much greater focus on fisheries, but no direction on the continued non-native fish stocking programs; wildlife management prescriptions are much stricter, but there is no emphasis on non-native mt. goat reintroductions on the forest; a number of grazing allotments where there has been no grazing have been closed, but grazing analyses are years and years behind; a recognition that road construction must be severely constrained and that roadless areas have important value, in spite of the looming question of mostly maintains (the problem here is the Forest Supervisor suggests this means the likelihood of no new roads, but the only decision that matters is what is in the plan and the word mostly becomes one of expectations); timber harvesting has been curtailed to 2.5 million board feet/year, but tucked neatly in the jargon is the fact that another 2 million board feet of timber can be harvested every year from lands deemed unsuitable for timber harvesting; and on and on.
But still most troubling is wilderness. The Forest Service, more than ever before, fears wilderness! The agency simply has not grown with the rest of society in recognizing the deep values of wilderness. Just look at this plan: a Lakes Wilderness less than the backcountry proposal made in the forest plan of 1985; a proposed High Uintas Wilderness addition only a tiny bit larger than the proposed semi-primitive non-motorized recommendations made in 1985; not a single acre of proposed wilderness on Mt. Naomi, not even the acres proposed in 1985 as semi primitive/non-motorized; not a single acre on the Stansburys; not a single acre on the Wasatch Front, e.g. Alexander Basin on the Mt. Olympus Wilderness, or White Pine Canyon on the Lone Peak Wilderness!
There are certainly a plethora of reasons to be mad, frustrated and even hurt. We played by the rules and in the spirit of "genuine politics." The Forest Service didn't. But night came, followed by day, a minute still was composed of 60 seconds (some cosmologists suggest there is no such thing as time) so on we must go as well. Forest plans are umbrellas-the decisions will still be made just like the East Fork Fire or West Fork Blacks Fork grazing decisions are being made. Appeals will be filed, decisions made again. Your voice will matter and the more passion and vigor it harbors the better! For no matter what the forest plan says, the Uintas and their wildness must persevere and that will happen because we care. Be as cynical or skeptical as your heart allows, but please keep your voice clear and distinct and constant!