HIGH UINTAS - Endangered Wilderness
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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 re-shaped by the
harshest weather imaginable.
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 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 krumholz 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.
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,
Agassiz, Gilbert, Cleveland, 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
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.
The ecologically-based 659,000 acre wilderness proposal made by UWA
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.