PRESERVING A WILD LEGACY: THE ROADLESS COUNTRY
The country adjacent to the protected High Uintas Wilderness is full of rich wildlife and forest vegetation. The mere existence of a line on the map does not connote what is wild, just what has been afforded federal protection. It is this country upon which the next several issues of THE LYNX will focus. We envision compiling all of this material in a booklet entitled, PRESERVING A WILD LEGACY: THE HIGH UINTA MOUNTAINS, so our members and others will understand our vision of High Uintas protection and management. In this issue, we focus on the country found within the Bear River drainage on the northwestern portion of the High Uintas. Future articles will follow the course of drainages across the North Slope to the South Slope.
THE HIGH UINTAS ROADLESS LANDSCAPE
What exactly is it that creates the immense importance of the Uintas' roadless country? It could be 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.
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. While the roadless narratives that follow are delineated into drainages or geographical namesakes, such as the Bollies, it is one place unto itself. Surrounding, contiguous and adjacent to this 460,000 acre High Uintas Wilderness are about 103,000 acres of roadless North Slope lands on the Wasatch National Forest and about 314,000 acres on the Ashley National Forest 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.
And, of course, literally across the street (in this case, the Mirror Lake Highway) from the High Uintas Wilderness, is our proposed Mt. Watson Wilderness, or Lakes Roadless Area, another 122,000 acres, making a remarkably clean, wild mountainous system of essentially 1,000,000 acres of roadless lands including the existing High Uintas Wilderness. We have recommended about 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, the Yellowstone Plateau on the Northern Rockies, and the Uintas sit in and at a junction of immense wildness.
Our sole obligation is to preserve this place, to allow its wildness to connect and hold this great power... and to refresh our story and hold ourselves together as part and parcel of this wild landscape. It is here we can awaken the ghost of wolf, wolverine, and grizz and share the life of great gray owl, cougar and black bear.
THE BEAR RIVER HEADWATERS
The Hayden Fork
The spectacular descent of Hayden Fork from its sources in the Hayden Peak springs and broad meadows near the Highline Trailhead constitutes the classic, renown scenic view along the Mirror Lake Highway. Moose, a myriad bird species, deer, elk, mammals... all frequent this panoramic river course. It resembles a living museum as one travels the route from the Stillwater turnoff up to Hayden Pass. This country, a wild drainage visually so close but in walking quite rugged to reach, is pristine in its gorgeous forested descent and sheer mountain walls.
Over the ridge to the east of Hayden Fork is an untrailed drainage that joins the Hayden at the highway and Hayden Fork Campground. It is part of this entire These are places integral to the survival of the wild inhabitants and vegetation and health of the range. These are the places, these unnamed drainages, that compose the music of the Uintas, the wind, the rain, the snow, the bark and blossom and birdsong of the range.
This drainage, particularly in conjunction with its counterpart drainages, Main Fork and the Stillwater Fork, meets all of the roadless characteristics. They represent a large and contiguous roadless tract of land, measured in the tens of thousands of acres, providing accessible but isolated backcountry recreational experiences and offering habitat for numerous extant, native interior-forest/sensitive species. It is native habitat for marten (extant), wolverine and lynx, of which the latter two may exist in this area.
The Main Fork
The first two or three miles of the trail up the Main Fork winds through sagebrush flats, a unique land type harbored
Slowly this open parkland gives way to multi-storied lodgepole pine--an old and maturing forest nudging the stream bank, opening into small parklands. Climb out of the lodgepole pine into the spruce and pine forests, then follow the forested meander to the open wet bogs where the river is only a meter wide. Make one more climb and Hell Hole Lake glimmers in a spruce and fir forested meadow. The ramparts of snowy A-1 and Kletting Peaks ring the basin. Half a dozen small ponds and large wet meadows dominate the landscape. Elk bugle. Thunder rattles the basin. The wind howls. The wildness of the Main Fork is not abstract. In the trees are pine marten and goshawk with recognized and excellent habitat for three-toed woodpeckers, boreal and great gray owls. Trotting along the meadows and rocky slopes are fox and coyote. Mountain lion slips through. Moose summer in the camouflage of shimmering leaves, winter in deep snows; they have no choice but to live with the Main Fork and all that it provides. It is a survival of immense antiquity and that alone represents a beauty we must acknowledge. Wolverine and lynx, native members of the Uintas fauna, if they exist at all in this homeland, are found in tiny numbers hidden in the darkest corners of the Main Fork. Already we've lost wolf and grizzly bear, both natives and likely cohorts of this specific drainage. Records show the river otter used to live here and may still occupy the Main Fork.
OR SO IT WAS. IN 1994 THE FOREST SERVICE ALLOWED AN OIL COMPANY TO ACCESS A LEASE IN THE MID-PORTION OF THIS DRAINAGE. A ROAD WAS PIONEERED INTO THE MAIN FORK AND THE LEASE WAS THEN SUSPENDED— BASED, IN PART, ON THE COMPANY’S DESIRE TO OBTAIN UNLEASED PARCELS OF LAND PRIOR TO CONTINUING THE DRILLING PROPOSAL IN THE ROADLESS MAIN FORK. WHILE MOST OF THE DRAINAGE IS STILL ROADLESS, A MEANINGFUL PIECE OF THE HEART OF WILDNESS HAS BEEN CARVED OUT OF THE AREA. IT IS LIKELY TO GET MUCH WORSE AS THE WASATCH, NEVER TO DISAPPOINT AN OIL COMPANY, LEASED THESE ROADLESS LANDS WITH FEW STIPULATIONS IN THE REVISED FOREST PLAN AND HAS NOW RE-AUTHORIZED DRILLING, WHICH SHOULD START IN SUMMER 2006.
A tangle of aspen clutters the bumpy, twisted terrain along the road up Stillwater Fork to the trailhed. To the west in a shaded ravine the river races to join the Hayden Fork. Patches of sky, canopy of aspen, dottings of pine... then that breathtaking view of Ostler and LaMotte Peaks high above the sweeping meadows of this riverine valley. The meadows demand a stop, a welcome annual survey of the great tilting world of mountains, forest and meadow. On one forested flank of the river nestle summer homes, on the other a steep incline of forest leading east across the flank of the Uintas into the roadless country of the East Fork Bear and beyond to the Wilderness.
The naming of the river becomes apparent: the luxuriant grasses of the Stillwater Basin invite exploration of deep, clear potholes and crystalline waters. Trout skim along the shadowy banks, moose rest in the aspen. And that nest, a goshawk. Wildflowers define the place—first in the spring with Western spring beauty, paintbrush, gilia, shooting star, yarrow, and late blooming purple gentian. Stillwater: the dream of artists and birders and other seekers of wild beauty.
Here are the spectacular narrows of a canyon, rich in birds and mammals and sunshine on traveling days, rain on nourishing days. The Stillwater Canyon is a deep canyon showing signs of numerous snow slides, thus dotted with aspen showing the power of a natural disturbance regime. About two miles from the trailhead one enters the High Uintas Wilderness on a small unnamed and untrailed drainage, that, if followed to the west, crosses a number of avalanche paths on open slopes of aspen and into a small and delicate basin forested with spruce and lodgepole, a few small untouched meadows and two tiny ponds, vibrant with aquatic wildlife. Bear tracks along the river tell of a deep silence and wildness. And it is midway up the Stillwater that people routinely see some of the largest moose found in the Uintas. Dense cover, isolated, open aspen slopes make for a vibrant riverine system.
Boundary CreekBoundary Creek is a small isolated drainage with its headwaters at Baker Lake. In many ways it is a refuge. For years it has not been grazed. There is no formal trailhead and the trail into the area is unmarked and rarely visited. It is a like a drainage enveloped and surrounded by the much larger and visible East Fork and Stillwater. The river bottom is unique in that it is densely forested. From the wetlands of Baker Lake, where the visitor can bask in the beauty of stunning peaks at the headlands of the basin, the creek gently flows through a forested wood of pine, spruce and fir with aspen dotting some of the open avalanche chutes. Meandering through willows where moose snip tips off the budding plants, where pine marten run the limbs of dark pines in search of squirrels and birds, where ouzel dips along splashed rocks, Boundary Creek is spectacular in its simplicity, its offering of life as the forest has always offered it. A rugged, forested trek from the springs and ponds half a mile below Baker Lake leads to Scow Lake in a marvelous hidden saddle between the Stillwater and Boundary Creek. The forests are old, harboring numerous interior forest birds such as flickers and three-toed woodpeckers. Pine marten and bear are residents.
The East Fork Of The Bear
About three miles from the East Fork of the Bear River trailhead one crosses into the High Uintas Wilderness at the falls where the Left and Right Hand Forks meet. Those three miles are characterized by a wide open, willow- filled wetland fed by a dozen small spring-like creeks. The river valley is deceptively wide because of the nature of the lift of the canyon walls. At one point about a mile up the drainage one can look across the valley over the top of old growth pine and spruce forest and right into the heart of the jagged spire of Mt. Beulah. This lower reach of the East Fork of the Bear is much different that the higher elevation and rapidly descending Right and Left Hand Forks within the wilderness. Here the terrain is highlighted by dense coniferous stands upslope from a wide meandering valley. This is the classic temperate coniferous forest connection to the high elevation subalpine parklands within the designated wilderness.
The soul of the Bear River drainages starts in the wilderness and flows through wildness. These places are not isolated from the wilderness--they are the wilderness and the very meaning of wildness. To detach them is administratively dishonest and biologically improper.