PRESERVING A WILD LEGACY: THE ROADLESS COUNTRY
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— it 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 North Slope of the Wasatch 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 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 crown 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 BLACKS FORK DRAINAGE
WEST FORK BLACKS FORK
Three miles of the West Fork extends up drainage from the trailhead to the Wilderness boundary. Where the wilderness is characterized by a river course of consistent descent and surrounded by a long and narrow wet and dry meadow system all the way to the headwaters, the roadless terrain below the wilderness boundary is primarily defined by an incredibly diverse and rich coniferous forest enclosing the stream and then "terracing" westward to Cataract Basin. Cataract Basin is known for its elk herd. Sloping up the east side of the drainage, the forest of lodgepole simply disappears into a small band of spruce and then a steep alpine slope. Many people attribute the highest aesthetic value to this drainage because of this inherently rich biotic diversity. The forest exhibits the classic old growth characteristics of multi-aged stands-- old, healthy and decadent trees mixed in with younger stands. Numerous gaps in the forest offer the biological parameters for pine marten and goshawk, and the landscape is classic lynx and wolverine habitat, particularly since the drainage is a piece of a larger unroaded landscape.
Too much of the lower developed and roaded West Fork Blacks Fork unraveled in the face of "checker-boarded" private lands being clearcut and subdivided. This underscores the importance of protecting the undeveloped/roadless landscapes of the West Fork of the Blacks Fork for biodiversity and wildland recreation.
Middle Fork Blacks Fork
From hundreds of tiny rivulets melting from late-summer snowfields on the shoulder of Tokewanna Peak to its confluence with the West Fork, the Middle Fork Blacks Fork is the least disturbed major drainage on the Uintas' North Slope. Recent studies show that the Middle Fork and its Brush Creek tributary harbor one of the few remaining, essentially pure populations of Colorado cutthroat trout—perhaps the rarest of all the inland cutthroats. They have found refuge in this remote drainage, free from the damage caused by road building and easy angler access. Beaver dams form quiet pools for native cutthroats.
A hike up the quiet Middle Fork is a hike through sprawling wet and dry meadows offering striking views of Tokewanna Peak. This country reminds you of the Uintas then: grizzlies and timber wolves roamed here! They could amble again along the Middle Fork if we preserve the quiet and the wild essence of this place. Unfortunately, it is a good day's walk—about six miles—to reach the Wilderness boundary from the trailhead—the wildest, yet least protected, of the Uintas drainages.
East Fork Blacks Fork
As night falls, silence blankets the East Fork. On a meandering hike in the roadless country between the guard station and the wilderness boundary, one imagines the nocturnal creatures of the dark forest at her shoulder and the glacier floor still settled beneath the broad, moonlit meadow taking up the flow of the two forks of the East Fork. Rocky, uneven earth tells the ancient story of this wild place's creation. A pocket of elk scat, a beaver-gnawed aspen limb, a cleft block of quartzite, a piece of moose horn... all are the quiet, vibrant tales of the East Fork. Two forks. Two personalities.
The Little East Fork tumbles down from the great Squaw Peak Ridge, rushing through the steep forested drainage of dense lodgepole, passing through this roadless, meadow country, greened by snowfall in the steep terraces of Bald Mountain's west flank. A refuge for elk, goshawk, gray owl, moose... all of whom can be seen if one is only quiet and watchful and chooses to stay a while. On the lower reaches of the Little East Fork we've seen and photographed the elusive great gray owl, watched a pine marten and had a goshawk mother swoop down on us as we examined her egg blown off her nest in a large lodgepole pine.
The main East Fork, the gateway to Lovenia and Red Knob which tower at the top of the basin, is a wider, wetter meander. A forest of birds, little critters, moose feeding on willows, spotted fawns we watched in awe one spring... a wild, natural place that is forest primeval to all who visit and vital to all that depend on it as home. In moonlight it is dark, wild and even more obviously a refuge of life able to survive in this shining world of river, willow and pine.
Just a few years ago the Forest Service wrote, "...the East Fork Blacks Fork drainage is attractive because of its picturesque qualities and the relatively quiet atmosphere; a special kind of resource in its own right." The scenery of the East Fork is what attracts, but its wildness brings one back.
To learn what is special about the Uintas, visit the Blacks Fork. Historically, the Blacks Fork piedmont glacier extended farther north than any glacier in the Uintas. The mountains and peaks are more rugged and more typical of the northern Rockies than anywhere else in Utah.
All of the Blacks Fork major tributaries--West Fork, East Fork and Little East Fork-- begin in alpine basins surrounded by lofty 13,000' peaks. Yet in every case where the Wilderness ends is still wilderness: two or three miles on the East Fork and Little East Fork; three to four miles on the West Fork; almost all of the Middle Fork. This is country made up of broad glacial basins, the dominant impression one carries on a walk through the mid-level country or on a climb into the high open country of Squaw, Lovenia, Red Knob. It is a land of moose, goshawk, bear and whistling marmot. It is the inextricable connective tissue between the high country and the designated trailheads. It belongs in roadless protection, not punctuated by man's extractive machinery. It is the heart of the Uintas. The entire hydrological drainage system of unroaded terrain is easily manageable, the epitome of a natural functioning system and a large remote and isolated region of incredible raggedness and diversity. It is inseparable from the Wilderness, a spiritual piece of that Wilderness.
SMITHS FORK, BEAVER CREEK AND BURNT FORK
West Fork Smiths Fork
A remarkably hidden drainage known for its undulating hillsides dotted with mountain sagebrush and dry meadows flowing into dense old growth forests marked with wet meadows and bogs.
East Fork Smiths Fork
The overriding value of this roadless country is the con- nectivity with the Wilderness and the high riparian/ wetlands associated with the East Fork from the trailhead to the Wilderness boundary. The steep timbered slopes to the east of the river provide for obvious aesthetic and biological diversity. This country is easily manageable because it is trailhead to wilderness and encloses the steep slopes above the river.
Generally spared the effects of historical tie-hacking, prevalent in other areas of the Uintas, the unroaded parts of these drainages are unique and unusually pristine. The West Fork of Beaver Creek contains some of the most wild and least impacted roadless lands on the North Slope. This area is typified by lush forested riparian areas, scattered meadows with the upper reaches near the wilderness not allocated to livestock. Potholes are frequent and resting ducks are a common sight during the summer months. The West Fork is a unique drainage of acre after acre of forests inhabiting a wide and gently sloping valley. Rather than the deep canyons of the Bear or the wide open glacial remnants of the Blacks Fork, this drainage is neatly tucked in dense forests that give way to easy slopes and steppes and sort of drift to the Henrys Fork on the west and the Middle Fork of the Beaver on the east. It is the center of the most expansive forested ecosystems on the Uintas. Goshawks and pine marten share wild habitat with lynx stalking snowshoe. Wolverine can still find real refuge in these wild drainages. Early in the summer on both the Middle Fork and West Fork of the Beaver Creek, the visiting common loon rests on many of the larger ponds prior to its magnificent trek northward. Both drainages receive very limited human use notching the wildness factor up even a few more steps. Black bear are seen here as frequently as anywhere on the Uintas.
This is large country adjacent to the Wilderness, with its headwaters from the Wilderness and inseparable in its wildness.
Burnt Fork/Thompson Creek/Kabell Creek
The recently reintroduced bighorn sheep find both summer and winter range in this area of open north/south ridges (like Burnt Ridge and Kabell Ridge) and on the numerous east/west hogbacks. These hogbacks are found in roaded terrain but are critical for bighorn sheep; most of the remaining reaches are roadless. This area is unique as the alpine and open subalpine ridges extend further north than anywhere in the Uintas, offering a vast panorama of wild land.
The roadless portion of Thompson Creek runs through rolling forested terrain with the rare Colorado Cutthroat and drains the open flanks of Thompson Peak and Burnt Ridge, habitat for bighorn sheep. The roadless upper portion of Kabell Creek, a tributary to Thompson Creek, drains the lush Kabell Meadows in the wilderness. Burnt Fork flows through a remarkably steep, narrow, forested canyon. This roadless canyon reportedly contains Colorado Cutthroat trout.
This is wonderful subalpine country with lots of classic spruce stands. Numerous high elevation potholes make for rich wetlands and numerous species of resting ducks, moose and pine marten. The feel of the place is entirely different from the Uintas to the west, including the neigh-boring drainages of Beaver Creek. This is high country which elevates distinctly, but not steeply, and offers unmatched vistas into and out of this terrain. Traversing Thompson or Kabell Creek, one is simply spellbound by the high peaks and undulating drainages of spruce, fir, open wet meadows and potholes. The peaks are different; they have become rounded and separate peaks, almost plateaus. They are the beginning of the bollies.