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Steitz Visit to West Fork Black's Fork

My two sons and I recently visited the West Fork Black’s Fork area of the Uintas, and were awed by the beauty and richness of the landscape, yet saddened by some of the vehicle and sheep damage we came across. On August 19th, we backpacked up the West Fork Black’s Fork river drainage, beginning at roughly the intersection of the Smith’s Fork-Bear River trail, continuing up a few miles where we set up camp. On the 20th we hiked up to Deadhorse Lake and back to our campsite, and on August 21st we returned to our vehicle.

WF_Blacks_Fork_vehicle_damage.jpg (35983 bytes)We were shocked by the condition of the landscape between the trail intersection and the area closed to motor vehicles just north of the wilderness boundary. Off road vehicles have not merely created a rutted but contained road, but rather have utterly destroyed wide swaths of meadow and forest wherever the ground was prone to muddiness. The resulting ruts funneled mud and dirt into the streams emptying into the West Fork, and the torn up meadows and woods constantly diverted vehicles to untrammeled turf. The pattern was obvious and the future appears set: the forest and meadows along the West Fork north of the travel-restricted area are doomed. It seems the Forest Service is sacrificing this area, but why? The muddy, rutted and ever widening swath of destruction leads to an area where motorized vehicles are prohibited. Are there pressing reasons why these miles just north of the travel-restricted area must be sacrificed? Sadly, these miles could have been declared wilderness in 1984.

I certainly do not pretend to be an expert in grazing. However, as we battled the sheep up the trail well into the wilderness, we were concerned at the basic lack of any attempt to keep the flock together and protected. We never saw anybody moving the animals, and the dogs hung out around the trailer! Meanwhile the sheep are roaming deep into the wilderness, splintering into smaller groups. This troubled us as we know that this permittee is killing coyotes in the wilderness! To allow predator control in a wilderness area; a place treasured for its natural processes, while the sheep rancher appears to not even attempt protecting the flock, struck us as very, very sad.

sheep_trails_WFBlacks.jpg (35324 bytes)We were saddened further as we moved further up the drainage and witnessed, trudged through, and were engulfed by the damage the sheep have done to the landscape. Multiple rows of sheep ruts obliterated the trail. We waded through ankle deep mud, too wide to get around. Streams pounded by hooves dumped a muddy roil into the river. As we stood amongst the sheep damage, we could only think of the Forest Service instructions to hikers, reminding us how important it is to tread lightly on the trail, avoiding erosion and protecting vegetation and watersheds.

Despite these heartbreaking management problems, we saw incredible beauty. As we moved into the wilderness the mixture of new and old trees, meadows and forest, and the ever-present West Fork Black’s Fork river refreshed our souls and suprised us at every turn. Where the sheep had not yet ravaged, our eyes soaked in the color and texture of fields of wildflowers, grasses, and sedges. Buck’s pasture seemed to almost float towards the majesty of Dead Horse Pass and Red Knob peak. We reached Dead Horse Lake and sat for lunch as the waters lapped at the base of the mountains before us. On our way back, a young bull moose stumbled upon us as he came up over the crest where we rested. As surprised as we, he loped across the entire meadow in the short time it took us to rise to our feet and attempt to follow! As I watched the young bull disappear into the woods, I thought of wolves. Perhaps someday they will return, and moose and wolf will resume their roles in this magical place, making each other faster, smarter, entwined in life. For now, at least some predators remain, despite the sheep ranchers’ attempts to snuff them out. That night we heard a chorus of coyotes singing to the night sky, following urges we cannot ever understand. As I listened to their song, I was saddened to know that each day they face guns, traps and poison for the crime of being what they are in a place they have always been because of the sheep which don’t belong.

We came back to the city. We wrote our letters, asking the Forest Service to save this place rather than destroy it. Lets give the future what the past has given us. The Forest Service is reviewing the grazing permits and will soon decide on the future of the West Fork Black’s Fork. Please take and moment and let the Forest Service know you treasure the Uintas as a wild place, not as a sheep farm or off road vehicle playground!

Marty Steitz


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