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Embracing the Uintas Mountains

In l997, the High Uintas Preservation Council was born from deep love and respect for the magnificent wild country known as the Uinta Mountains. Our first newsletter carried this account of what we felt our new membership should know about the uniqueness of the range. We include it here for your reflection.The next few editions of the LYNX will carry side by side essays written then and now about the issues facing the High Uintas.

The High Uintas are Utah's magnificent mountain anomaly. Walter Cottam, one of Utah's preeminent botanists, noted in 1930 that "the Uinta Mountains represent Utah's only claim to a typical Northern Rocky Mountain flora." According to Intermountain Flora, the Uintas' area above timberline in a true alpine flora surpasses all of the alpine areas in the Intermountain West combined. Also anomalous, the range runs east and west for 150 miles across northeastern Utah; the core 55 miles of this wrinkled ridgeline rarely drops below 11,000 feet, with at least a dozen major summits soaring to over 13,000 feet (including Kings Peak, Utah's highest point at 13,528 feet.) Hundreds of glacially carved lakes dot small and large basins, some as high as 12,000 feet, others hidden in dense spruce and fir forests. While active glaciers no longer find refuge in the Uintas, these mountains are continually reshaped by Utah's harshest weather.

The North Slope is a gentle, almost plateau-like region of lodgepole pine forests surrounding meandering open parklands and high mountain meadows. River bottoms are wide and filled with tall willows, potholes and beaver ponds. A series of steep glacial stairs give rise to a belt of spruce and fir forests leading to the tightly packed krummholz of alpine basins. Looking into the South Slope, the heart of the Uintas, one fathoms the unique massiveness of this range. Here huge glacial basins dominate the immediate landscape. Off in the distance deep glacial canyons lost in the long jumble of spruce and fir forests gently tumble down river basins into lodgepole pine and out into the sagebrush of the Uintah Basin.

Although it has only a few tree species (lodgepole pine, Englemann spruce, subalpine fir, small stands of ponderosa pine and douglas-fir, along with a few deciduous hardwoods, aspen, birch, alder and willows), the range has great vertical and horizontal heterogeneity. These extensive forests make the Uintas unique in the Intermountain West.

This topographical variety and size allow the Uintas to harbor a diverse fauna--Canada lynx, black bear, cougar, wolverine (sporadic sightings), great gray and boreal owls, golden eagle, goshawk, osprey, pileated and three-toed woodpeckers, river otter, pine marten, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, moose, and elk. Grizzly bear, wolf, and bison once found a secure home in the Uintas. In this mountain sanctuary, the sensitive and native Colorado and Bonneville cutthroat trout still have a few isolated stream miles within which to hide.

Although fragmented by destructive Forest Service policies of timber harvesting, grazing, oil and gas development, predator control, as well as by state wildlife management activities focusing on game management, the Uintas have proven resilient. This range remains a biologically important and reasonably intact mountain sanctuary. Yet only a portion of it is actually protected. Historically, the Uintas were at the crossroads of development of the Interior West. First described by Father Escalante in 1776 and later by John Wesley Powell in 1869, the Uintas have been hunted by the Utes, trapped for beaver by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, surveyed and studied by the greatest naturalists of the 19th century--Hayden, Cleveland, Agassiz, Gilbert, Leidy, Marsh-- and more recently explored by increasing numbers of backpackers.

In 1931 a 237,000 acre portion of the Uintas was designated by the Forest Service as the High Uintas Primitive Area, almost exclusively above 10,000 feet. For over 50 years the Uintas witnessed a plethora of administratively proposed wilderness boundaries. Ironically, while these wilderness proposals have offered increasing acreages, the roadless nature of the range has been steadily eroded by logging and energy developments. In 1979 the Utah Wilderness Association proposed a 659,000 acre High Uintas Wilderness. The Forest Service responded a year later with a 511,000 acre recommendation. In 1983 the Utah Wilderness Association succeeded in pushing the Utah congressional delegation to introduce a Utah Wilderness Bill. Emerging in 1984 was a 460,000 acres High Uintas Wilderness. Although smaller than the Forest Service recommendation, the creation of the High Uintas Wilderness marked a major wilderness stepping-stone.

UWA's ecologically-based 659,000 acre wilderness proposal would protect the lower forest basins and entire
unroaded watersheds. It focuses on preservation of biological systems. It looks at salamanders as every bit as important as trout. It views the diversity of a forest primeval as the critical value. It calls for restoration of already damaged and roaded landscapes. Unfortunately, the area proposed for protection is fraying at the edges under Forest Service management.

Dick Carter

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