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MORE HIGH UINTAS UPDATES

At long last this summer will see the Forest Service finally initiate the high lakes stabilization within the High Uintas Wilderness (HUW) on the Yellowstone and Lake Fork drainages. (HUPC LYNX and HUPC Review, 1/97, 4/98, 4/99, 8/01, 12/01, 6/02, 2/04, 6/04.) Fourteen lakes on these two drainages were enlarged at the turn of the century by small earthen dams, all constructed with the proverbial horse and buggy. After decades of work, an alternative for storage of the water rights held in these high wilderness reservoirs was sought, discovered and finally ready to fill Big Sand Wash. It is off forest and off-stream, making it a viable environmental alternative and a win-win situation where water users and managers have much easier access to water and wilderness values and wetlands when the high lake reservoirs are finally all breached. The benefits will be dramatic. This is hopeful and meaningful; natural values will be enhanced rather than disturbed!

The first three lakes to be stabilized at natural lake levels allowing inherent inflow/ outflow will be White Miller and Farmers Lakes on Swift Creek and Water Lily on the Yellowstone River. All three small reservoirs are, in essence, already breached. The work will be done without motorized equipment and start this summer.
There may be the rub: in spite of assurances and expectations from past discussions, the Forest Service is not willing to commit that all of the remaining reservoir stabilization will be done by hand/ muscle/horse ...all consistent with tenets of the Wilderness Act.

...But not all is good. Some 15 miles north and east as the golden eagle flies to the headwaters of the Uinta River in the HUW sit Fox and Crescent Lakes. (HUPC LYNX 4/98, 4/01, 8/01, 6/02, 2/03, 2/04, 6/04.) Rather than being decommissioned and stabilized, these two reservoirs are actually being enhanced and reconstructed to meet higher standards. Over our loud objections and appeals, the Forest Service has granted the irrigation company that owns these reservoirs a private easement to utilize helicopters and heavy motorized machinery to enhance these reservoirs. That work will commence this summer as well and will, in essence, destroy the wilderness character of the area. It will assure that it remains suboptimal for decades yet to come. The
decision was wrong; the water is not even needed. But water rights trump wilderness values and the Forest
Service tucked its tiny head and ran.

An April 9, 2006 Salt Lake Tribune story focused on the dam stabilization project. In part, the article addressed the mechanization controversy:
...At Fox and Crescent reservoirs, meanwhile, crews will be allowed by special permitting to use helicopters and some mechanized equipment. Forest Service officials call the project to shore up the dams necessary for safety reasons. Unlike the lake restoration project, they say they have been unsuccessful in attempts to transfer the water storage rights.
We don't have the equivalent of Big Sand Wash to store the water, says Mike Elson, the district ranger. The only solution is to upgrade the reservoirs and make them safer and easier to maintain.
That part of the project, however, is strenuously opposed by the High Uintas Preservation Council for a variety of reasons.
It's just flat-out wrong, says Dick Carter, the group's coordinator. This is going to allow the Forest Service to essentially call these reservoir sites private property. They're not only reconstructing them, but they theoretically will allow motorized activity on a regular basis to maintain them. They're basically being put into the wilderness on a permanent basis.


WILDERNESS FISHERIES

The Department of Integrative Biology at BYU has proposed to conduct a fisheries study in Garfield Basin of the High Uintas Wilderness (HUW) on the Ashley National Forest (ANF).

The study proposes to determine the effects of non-native stocked brook trout populations inhabiting lakes and streams on the current and historical distribution and movement of the native Colorado River Cutthroat Trout (CRCT). This study would also serve to determine the level of genetic purity of the CRCT.

A special use permit would be issued to allow researchers to monitor real-time movement of fish using a stationary tag reader and antenna (1.5 m long) positioned across the stream channel. Each tag reading station would be powered by a 12 V deep-cycle marine battery. The ANF has determined the study is compatible with wilderness values and could not be done outside of the HUW.

While the proposal sounds innocuous, it is, in fact, more than a bit devious. Literally a plethora of studies and data clearly and unequivocally show brook trout have significant detrimental impacts to CRCT and that in high alpine lake systems brook trout move easily from lake to lake where there is only intermittent stream access.

What is being sought is already known!

For decades we have had these discussions with the Forest Service concerning the need to end non-native recreational-based fish stocking in designated wilderness. (See, for example, HUPC Newsletter, 1/97, 6/97, 8/97, and HUPC LYNX, 6/00, 8/00, 8/02.) In spite of the data - again there is no disputation about this data - the Forest Service has turned its head. This was a major discussion within the context of the HUW Wilderness Management Plan with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) insisting that any discussions of fisheries should not be on the table. The Forest Service, of course, acquiesced and, in so doing, terminated the collaborative effort in preparing a wilderness management plan. This has been the standard operating procedure of the Forest Service dealing with this issue.

Thus at the simplest level we know the results of the study brook trout, no matter how they move, seriously inhibit and negatively affect CRCT. But at even a deeper and more meaningful level, it is without dispute as well that non-native fish were stocked in these lakes that were likely fishless. CRCT were not indigenous to any of these lakes, while likely inhabiting only the streams.

Simply put, it is like studying the effects of swallowing poison. Why study it? We know it is harmful. For decades now we have argued the first step in returning the wild to the HUW is to stop nonnative fish stocking. Second, determine the historical, ecological extent of native fisheries and seek that goal as the non-natives simply disappear.

Plainly, as to the wilderness values, the Forest Service has not determined this information is necessary to administering/managing the HUW the primary goal and directive of the formal wilderness management regulations/handbook.

A follow-up and obvious concern, consistent with Forest Service wilderness management responsibilities, is how this proposal adds to the protection of HUW characteristics and values. The tangential argument that it will enhance the HUW by knowing how brook trout impact native fisheries only has merit if the non-native fishery stocking programs are immediately terminated throughout the HUW and an objective analysis of the extent of native fisheries is engaged with the intent of allowing native fisheries to return to their wild native habitats as the non-native recreational based fisheries are terminated.

The guiding question is how this enhances wilderness values/characteristics and whether the proposal and its physical components meet the context and constraints of the minimum required for administration for the purpose of the Act.

This means, of course, preserving wilderness values/characteristics.

The sad irony is that non-native recreational-based fish stocking clearly does not meet any of these wilderness tests. Yet it is allowed to proceed without critical analysis. While meritorious and well intentioned, this proposed study would serve no purpose if non-native, recreational-based fisheries were not allowed within the HUW.

Dick Carter


ALMA TAYLOR/CHARLEY'S PARK TIMBER SALE

As we've noted regularly over the last couple of years, after a meaningful absence of major timber harvesting proposals, both the Wasatch and Ashley National Forests have rapidly ramped up the timber harvesting action on the Uintas. Back in time we continue to move.

On the Ashley, the Vernal Ranger District has revived the Alma Taylor Plateau/Charleys Park timber sale. A history of timber harvesting in this area on mid-elevation (9,000-9,500 feet) lodgepole pine forests of the South Slope has left the area ecologically dysfunctional and fragmented beyond recognition - something recognized by the agency's own analyses.

So what to do? Well, why not log some more, which seems to be the Ashley's answer.

The project's purpose is "to insure continued aspen regeneration and structural diversity in lodgepole pine to benefit mule deer populations, restore critical moose winter range, and also improve northern goshawk foraging, nesting habitat." Aspen, both "climax" and particularly the seral communities in this project area, cycle through space and time. To pick what is normal for aspen at any one time is absurd and intellectually dishonest. The proposed action/scoping document suggests aspen has declined 25% in the project area but does not explain what the 25% figure represents - acres, trees, or clones. Trying to hold aspen "still" or in a steady state as a point-in-time reference is meaningless.

What needs to be managed for and measured is the dynamic and holistic set of ecological processes/ disturbances that allow aspen to dance its way through this space. Aspen will ebb and flow as a dominant to minor to dominant component in the community.

The concern over the lack of structural diversity of lodgepole pine in the project area is largely a function of Forest Service tinkering through extensive timber harvesting and by prohibiting natural fires. In some cases in this particular area, it is the typical expression of lodgepole pine forests. Large, infrequent stand replacing fires dominate and define this system. Trying to alter that structure only exacerbates the dysfunction in the system. Instead of correctly "managing" for ecological processes, this proposal simply stipulates more of the past failed management regimes.

The proposal suggests summer mule deer range is a problem in the area and that the project area deer herd is not meeting Utah Division of Wildlife Resource (UDWR) objectives. That's a new one! If this is the case, then it means summer range is the limiting factor and is actually causing mortality in the herd. We all know that is absurd- an excuse to attempt to rationalize this project. South Slope deer herds are down for a number of reasons but not the lack of summer range on the Alma Taylor/ Charley's Park area. This also suggests the likelihood that deer herd objectives are far too high and it would be more prudent and professional for the Forest Service to engage that discussion with UDWR rather than being drawn into a hopeless and disingenuous pursuit largely void of any ecological reality.

How will nearly 900 acres of shaded fire breaks, 314 acres of partial cuts, over 1,100 acres of group selection cuts, and almost 100 acres of shelterwood harvesting improve moose winter range at over 9,000 feet in elevation?

The irony is rather clear - the area, the Forest Service says, is summer range constrained for deer and winter range constrained for moose! This is nothing more than gibberish to justify timber sales that have no ecological meaning.

The proposal speaks to goshawk in a rather general way, assuring us that the project will help goshawk habitat without any explanation other than "trust us, it will." A 2005 Wildlife Bulletin Study (2005, 33(1): 120-129) noted that goshawks are not the habitat generalists often portrayed by the Forest Service. They are old growth/mature forest dependent species and select home ranges based on the availability of these complex stands, not prey abundance.

What makes sense is the use of prescribed fire and the use of natural fire ignitions to allow the inherent ecological processes define and determine the context of this forest system.

And then, of course, the kicker the whole project is categorically excluded from a full NEPA analysis and disclosure. Hiding behind this process, the Forest Service does not have to analyze ecological tradeoffs, alternatives or environmental analyses. It is the height of hubris and insincerity!

Dick Carter


 


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