The Wild Uintas and the Wasatch National Forest Plan
The Wasatch National Forest Plan inexorably marches on...
While the Forest deserves tremendous credit and acknowledgment for such an open and extensive public review process, the proposed action needs a bit of help. Remember, the process is just underway (see THE LYNX 10/99.) The draft EIS will be out late this spring or early summer, the final by the end of the year 2000! There is nothing of more importance because this plan will either guide the forest into mediocrity or move us forward into a broad ecological paradigm. It is that important!
But there exists a meaningful set of concerns that are in omission or neglected. In an era when the value of roadless landscapes, particularly those large connected areas, is undeniably important and confirmed, this Proposed Action deeply slips in context and content. Throughout this process Wasatch Forest personnel have assured us that there is not significant, if any, intent to build roads into these roadless areas, even though the Management Prescription(s) attached to over 65% of the roadless acreage allows for limited road construction. But the actions in the Proposed Action seem very clear. The Wasatch believes the vast acreage of roadless areas deserve not a roadless prescription, but a potential development/roaded prescription.
The Ogden District was particularly egregious. Even though the 17,000 acre South Fork of the Ogden River was recommended for wilderness, a noteworthy recommendation, almost 80% of the roadless acreage on the district was allocated to prescriptions that offer or allow for road building, including spectacular backcountry watersheds such as Burch Creek, Willard Peak, Lewis Peak or the wild Mollens Hollow.
On the Logan District it is highlighted to an even greater extent. About 13% of the roadless acreage was offered a roadless prescription(s), including an 8,000 acre addition to the Mt. Naomi Wilderness. Stated in the positive, the Forest Service is suggesting that it is preferable to allocate over 85% of the roadless acreage to a prescription allowing roads.
This draft Proposed Action misses a special opportunity of identifying as a forestwide goal the intent of protecting intact and whole roadless areas, not just fragments of the roadless landscape. In every context protection of these kinds of landscapes will add to watershed health (a forestwide goal), biodiversity and viability (a forestwide goal), and recreation (a forestwide goal). The point is protecting roadless landscapes as one of the forestwide goals is as overarching from an ecological perspective as any other goal noted in the Proposed Action. It is true there is some controversy associated with this concept, but not using the word roadless and not pursuing a forestwide goal simply suggests the forest is intimidated by the discussion. Remarkable opportunities present themselves to alter the Proposed Action by substantially noting the value of these roadless landscapes by allocating the roadless areas adjacent to the existing wildernesses as proposed wilderness or undeveloped area.
Adjacent to the Mt. Naomi Wilderness only about 8,000 acres in the southeast corner were recommended as wilderness. Another 16,000 acres was given a backcountry protection prescription, but ironically another 16,000 acres was allocated to road development! This is the cream of the crop, all of it contiguous to the 45,000 acres Mt. Naomi Wilderness. An opportunity to make the Mt. Naomi Wilderness meaningfully large and integral is being foregone by this Proposed Action. These areas exhibit a high degree of naturalness and wildness. They are large, contiguous and continuous tracts of land that logically extend the flow of the Mt. Naomi Wilderness to the road and trailheads where the undeveloped landscape finds its character. This makes the area far more manageable simply because the high quality roadless lands are recommended for a consistent management regime.
The same lack of direction and vision occurred on the Stansbury Mts. About 17,000 acres was proposed for wilderness or a backcountry status while 21,000 acres was allocated to roaded prescriptions. Everything for everybody, with no foundation! In stead of following a well-founded division of adding large tracts of wild land to the existing wilderness, the Forest Service falters. Instead of looking to ecologically based wildlands, the Forest Service falters. Rather than the beginning of a new 21st century vision, the Forest Service falters.
The Lakes backcountry is the most frustrating of all the roadless allocations in the Proposed Action in that since RARE I, and continuing right through this Proposed Action analysis, it has been the highest rated roadless area outside of the main block of the Uintas in the state and is the largest remaining roadless area on the Wasatch and one of the largest on Forest Service lands in Utah, only smaller than the combined High Uintas roadless area. There are no timber harvesting opportunities or oil and gas leasing conflicts on the roadless area. It is indeed roadless, it is a haven to wildlife and is large enough to stand as an integral and wild chunk of land. When tied to the High Uintas Wilderness, which, of course, it IS, the Uintas system takes on a breathtaking sweep of mountainous terrain unmatched in Utah and Nevada and comparable to the Northern Rockies of Wyoming and Idaho.
In spite of all that, the Proposed Action recommends a very small 46,627 acre wilderness and/or undeveloped area (open to snowmobile use) along with another 13,761 acres of undeveloped areas (open to snowmobiles) adjacent to this core. In essence 51% of this area is allocated to a roaded-development Management Prescription, intended or not!
We find it incredulous that at least 80,000 acres of this wild place is not a wilderness recommendation-- it should be! It would be a meaningful addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System as part of High Uintas Wilderness complex and is large enough and wild enough, not to mention undeniably roadless, to allow it to stand as an integral wilderness system. The Wasatch must be able to see fit to recommend wilderness on areas of this obvious quality and character. It can't be allowed to be a blind spot any longer!
The North Slope of the Uintas roadless allocation deserves some support in that they are a strategic and well thought out set of allocations. The no-snowmobiles-allowed decisions are commendable. The problem is lack of wilderness recommendations on the North Slope. The lack of wilderness recommendations just doesn't make any sense other than as an indication of being overly awed by local opposition, which is almost always based on legend and mythical concerns toward wilderness. There is no reason why the Forest Service must participate in such myth.
The Proposed Action recommended only 45% of the High Uintas roadless landscape acreage receive a roadless (25,000 acres) prescription or a wilderness (20,000 acres) recommendation. Stated another way, an unfortunate one, the Wasatch is saying that 5 5% of this 102,000 acres is receiving a prescription that allows for road development. This, on the most substantial, wild and integral roadless country not just on this forest but in this state and one of the largest and most substantive area in the Intermountain Region of the Forest Service. It is a diverse, intact mountainous system which in context and scope is indivisible with, unbroken from, the High Uintas Wilderness.
A few simple remedies exist. The small areas on the East Fork of Smiths Fork, the Henry's Fork, the Beaver Meadows area and the Hayden Fork (it was shocking to see this area proposed for timber harvesting!), by every standard we can imagine, meet wilderness criteria and are part and parcel of the High Uintas Wilderness as they bring the wilderness boundary to the roadless boundary and the trailhead. It is as logical and meaningful as the good recommendation on the West Fork Beaver Creek.
The other two major additions-- lifetime opportunities-- where the Wasatch can mark a forward movement in conservation and wilderness preservation rests on the Stillwater and Boundary Creek areas and the thumb of the lower Middle Fork of the Blacks Fork-- undeniably wild, roadless and important wildlife habitat. They too are part and parcel with the High Uintas Wilderness. They are part of the flow of wildness. They are not extensions of the wilderness-- they ARE the High Uintas Wilderness.
The issue of snowmobile use on roadless lands, particularly on the Lakes backcountry and in large portions of the Logan District, particularly on Mt. Naomi roadless lands contiguous to the Mt. Naomi Wilderness, is meaningfully disturbing. In discussions with many folks in the Forest Service it is obvious this is a sensitive issue and one of near hysteria. In essence the Forest Service, over the years has turned its eye, despite long standing concerns from organizations like ours, from snowmobiling issues (both ecological and social issues) and now faces a significant management dilemma. Restricting snowmobiling, once established, is difficult with far too many snowmobilers offering threatening reprisals and showing little or no concern about other users or conservation issues. The Proposed Action basically meets those concerns by considering snowmobile use a given-- an activity outside of the planning process. With the considerable issues of lynx, other winter wildlife concerns and the simple need for natural silence in large wild regions, it is imperative that most roadless areas, particularly those of high wild character as noted in our comments, be off limits to snowmobile use. They are winter road/motorized uses and are incompatible by definition with undeveloped, semi-primitive, non-motorized allocations. Continuing the carte blanche approval of snowmobile use across almost all roadless acres on the Kamas, Logan and Ogden Ranger districts only assures years of conflict.