PRESERVING A WILD LEGACY: THE HIGH UINTA MOUNTAINS
The next few issues of THE LYNX will contain segments from a document we have entitled, PRESERVING A WILD LEGACY: THE HIGH UINTA MOUNTAINS. We envision compiling all of this material in a booklet so our members and others will understand our vision of High Uintas protection and management. In this issue, we present the first four sections: Wildlife, Wilderness/Roadless Protection, Wilderness Management, and Wild/Scenic Rivers.
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."
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.
Their 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 (on the return!) 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 and now threatened by hordes of off road vehicles.
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, precursor to the High Uintas Preservation Council, proposed a 659,000 acre High Uintas Wilderness (HUW). The Forest Service responded a year later with a 511,000 acre wilderness area commendation. 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 acre High Uintas Wilderness. Although smaller than the Forest Service recommendation, the creation of the High Uintas Wilderness marked a major wilderness steppingstone.
A careful analysis by the High Uintas Preservation Council showed that a 730,000 acre (approximate) ecologically-based 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.
On many drainages, only after several miles of tranquil hiking will you see the sign, "High Uintas Wilderness," the artificial boundary that separates protected Wilderness from unprotected wilderness. When Congress passed the Utah Wilderness Act in 1984, a 460,000 acre High Uintas Wilderness was created. It became one of the largest wildernesses in the lower ’48, yet critical roadless lands were not designated—the logic of these exclusions has escaped all observers.
It is tempting to think of the roadlessness that surrounds the Uintas as individual roadless areas. Of course, it isn’t—this roadlessness is a sweeping arc of a single roadless landscape flowing out from the 460,000 acre High Uintas Wilderness. Surrounding, contiguous and adjacent to this 460,000 acre wilderness are about 103,000 acres of roadless North Slope lands on the Wasatch and about 314,000 acres on the Ashley North and South Slopes, about 877,000 acres of designated wilderness and roadless lands surrounding the wilderness. Of this, we propose about 80,000 acres on the Wasatch North Slope and 190,000 acres on the Ashley South and North Slopes that should be added to the extant High Uintas Wilderness—some 730,000 acres of High Uintas we feel should be designated as wilderness. This, of course, includes the existing High Uintas Wilderness.
And, of course, literally across the street (in this case, the Mirror Lake Highway) from the High Uintas Wilderness is our Mt. Watson Wilderness, or Lakes Roadless Area, another 122,000 acres, making a remarkably clean, wild mountainous system of essentially 1,000,000 acres or roadless lands including the existing High Uintas Wilderness, over 1,500 square miles. We have recommended 75,000 acres of the Lakes Roadless area as the proposed Mt. Watson Wilderness, making for an expanse of undeniably high quality wilderness complex of some 805,000 acres! Connect all of this to the Book Cliffs and the high Colorado Plateaus of the Southern Rockies and the high Wyoming deserts through the Green River to the Wind Rivers, the Wyoming Range, and the Yellowstone Plateau on the Northern Rockies, and the Uintas sit in and at a junction of immense wildness.
What exactly is it that creates the immense importance of the Uintas' roadless country? It is the range's size, its many moods of weather and physical challenge to the visitor, its profound silence in winter and cacophony of needles, leaves, stones, waterfalls in winds of autumn, its powerful rains and sun of summer in the high country, its chance encounter with creatures that never leave a mountain range in which they were born. The Uintas are a living system, an irreplaceable fabric of forest life. These are not abstract values—they are special places. That sense of a wild place is fundamental within each drainage and is enhanced as a profound wild character when viewed as a whole place of roadless drainages.
THE HIGH UINTAS PRESERVATION COUNCIL VISION
The Uintas harbor the headwaters of all of Utah's major river systems—the Provo, Weber, Bear, and the major tributaries to the Green—the Duchesne, Uinta and Yellowstone. Each drainage is identifiably unique, from the broad green meadows of the West Fork of Blacks Fork and the deep canyon of the Uinta to the timbered slopes of the Yellowstone.
While it has taken a long time, both forests have finally produced Wild and Scenic River inventories that are notable. The Wasatch has identified 33 river segments on the forest totaling over 260 miles, of which 19, about 160 miles, are in the Uintas. The Ashley’s inventory includes 24 eligible rivers and over 320 miles. Neither inventory is complete in that the second stage, suitability for inclusion in the Wild and Scenic River System (W&SRS), has not been conducted (once this is completed, it is still up to Congress to add rivers to the W&SRS), but both eligibility inventories are reasonably accurate and closely mimic our formal W&SR proposal. Notable exceptions are on the Wasatch where the Middle Fork of the Blacks Fork and Swift Creek within the High Uintas Wilderness on the Ashley were not found eligible!
THE HIGH UINTAS PRESERVATION COUNCIL VISION
Hundreds of species of birds, mammals, fish and amphibians inhabit the Uintas—Utah’s most biologically diverse area. Interior forest species, wide ranging ungulates, a remarkable plethora of song birds, forest owls, including the
It is now recognized that the Uintas are a crucially important part of the both the Northern and Southern Rockies. They play an important role as both home and habitat to all of the major species found in the Northern Rockies and as a corridor for movement to and through both the Northern and Southern Rockies. The Uintas are still “intact” and large enough to host wide ranging wild carnivores, ungulates and old growth specific interior forest species. Their incredible wild size, parklands, wetlands, true alpine system, vast stretch of connected forests, wild riparian and riverine systems make the Uintas a remarkable ecosystem. It is paradise to beaver, now on the return after having been almost trapped out of the Uintas. Beaver are recognized as a pivotal species because of their remarkably positive influence upon riparian systems. Osprey nest in secretive places in the Uintas. Pika find the coolness of the Uintas as home—amazingly enough, pika are showing a major downturn in populations in many mountain ranges because of warming alpine conditions. Bighorn sheep were once plentiful and small isolated populations have always been in the Uintas. Recent transplants have augmented the species, but its survival is solely dependent upon removing and phasing out domestic sheep grazing.
But not all is as it should be: recreation stocking of non-native fish, primarily brook and rainbow trout, has led to the near extinction of native Bonneville and Colorado Cutthroat Trout and has negatively influenced other aquatic species in lakes and ponds historically without fish, which includes most high elevation lakes in the Uintas. But those lakes were not void of life—they were filled with native salamanders and frogs, now mostly gone, pushed out by non-native fisheries. Introduction of non-native species like mountain goats has harmed native vegetation and detracted from the purpose of wilderness to provide habitat for native wild species.
Wildlife and forest "management" must emphasize natural processes, especially within the HUW and adjacent roadless areas, not the fishing pole or rifle, and should protect native species, including large carnivores, and natural inherent ecological processes.
The importance of the size and diversity of the wild, undeveloped Uintas can’t be overstated. The Uintas are home to wolves and an increasing population of lynx and wolverine. By protecting this place, that future remains real, not simply an abstract idea or past-tense wishing. Leave it be, allow the wild ecological dance to choreograph itself, and the wild ecosystem will be “remembered.” A return of native fisheries, wolf, lynx, wolverine and maybe some day, far into a wiser future, grizz and bison would signal an unparalleled recovery and vision only rarely achieved.
THE HIGH UINTAS PRESERVATION COUNCIL VISION
It is incumbent upon the Forest Service to manage the High Uintas Wilderness consistent with The Wilderness Act. The management principles are simple, clear and spelled out—wilderness characteristics/values are not to be degraded and are to be continuously moving “up” the wilderness purity scale.
A designated wilderness such as the High Uintas Wilderness is not a minor variation of land not designated as wilderness. It is as different as day is to night. It is “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape…” It is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man….” It is an area “retaining its primeval character and influence…affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable…” and has “outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive and unconfined recreation….” This is the vision of the Wilderness Act—the essence of wilderness.
The High Uintas Wilderness is no place for non-native fish stocking (with or without the use of helicopters), or non-native mountain goat transplants, using helicopters or not. It is not a place for predator control of any sort. It is a place where cougar and bighorn sheep play out an eons-old dance. It is a place where wolves define the behavior of elk. It is a place where the entire wilderness provides outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation.
To this extent some hopeful management activities have occurred: small wilderness reservoirs dating back to the early 1900s on the Yellowstone and Lake Fork drainages are now being removed. The Forest Service has initiated a broad campfire restriction prohibiting campfires on dozens of drainages and lakes where impacts have been substantial and small downed wood is lacking! But on balance the Forest Service still sees the High Uintas Wilderness as a variation of typical land management and a playground for recreation.
HIGH UINTAS PRESERVATION COUNCIL VISION