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HIGH UINTAS - Endangered Wilderness

Timber

"Tie-hacked" for the railroad at the turn of the century, Uinta timber re-surfaced as an issue in the 1950s, with the Forest Service looking for companies to harvest the Uintas for pulpwood. By the early 1960s this issue was resolutely dead, yet the agency had allocated much of the Uintas to timber harvesting. By the 1970s extensive harvesting was occurring in the area. At the same time, concerns were growing about the impacts of timber harvesting.

In 1986 the Wasatch-Cache National Forest estimated acres suitable for timber harvesting in mature stands were 80% less than forest plan predictions on the roaded areas. In unroaded areas the mature timber base was estimated at only 40% of what the plan predicted. This systematic over-harvesting was excused by the Forest Service as a response to a forest health crisis. By 1991 the Wasatch-Cache National Forest finally proposed to reduce the timber harvest by over 50% because of concerns for wildlife, watersheds, roadless, wilderness values, declining timber inventories, and regeneration difficulties associated with high elevation forests.

Commissioned by the Utah Wilderness Association in the mid '80s, Cascade Holistic Economic Consultants (CHEC) prepared a report showing the Ashley National Forest overestimated its volume of timber and that within three decades all old-growth lodgepole pine outside of the High Uintas Wilderness would be liquidated.

west from Cyclone.jpg (28889 bytes)The "forest health" crisis was initiated by the Forest Service following World War II when the agency escalated its attempts to circumvent the natural processes that built forests over eons of time. Wild fires and parasitic insect outbreaks create gaps in the forest which allow for regeneration, assist in nutrient recycling, enhance wildlife habitat, and create the patchiness that adds to the vertical and horizontal diversity inherent to natural forests. Natural disturbances are agents of creation. Step by mysterious step, the forest builds itself in places and falls apart in others due to beetles, mistletoe, fire, and wind, moving vertically, horizontally, forward and backward through time.

Disturbances highlight the difference between a "productive" forest and an integral forest. Healthy forests according to the Forest Service are those that efficiently produce lumber. The trees grow rapidly and are of the same age and structure. Timber plantations do not mimic nature. The integral forest is diverse in age, structure, and composition. It is a new-old, scraggly-straight, stunted-tall forest. It is a diverse forest defined not by what species, communities and processes occur there.

Hiding behind the metaphorically incorrect concept of "forest health," Congress and President Clinton, approved in 1995 Section 2001, the Emergency Salvage Timber Sale Program. The salvage rider expired at the end of 1996, but curtailment of environmental laws and meaningful public involvement will be around for some time, as timber sales offered under the rider are in cut in coming years.

The most egregious salvage sale was Round Park, on the eastern end of the Uintas' North Slope. This undulating expanse of old pine forests, parklands, wet meadows, and untouched churning streams is the heart of the unprotected North Slope. The southern boundary of the proposed harvesting is the High Uintas Wilderness. On the north are the Doug-fir forests of Widdop Mountain, a small roadless area important for ungulate winter range. The Forest Service proposed logging 2,218 acres of roadless country, harvesting nearly 21 million board feet--the largest timber sale ever on the Uintas. These forests are home for pine marten, goshawk, black bear, moose and a host of other species needing untouched wild forests. Even the Forest Service admitted this proposal would significantly fragment natural and wild forests!

clearcutAfter an angry group of wilderness advocates challenged the proposal, Agriculture Secretary Glickman's policy directive removing roadless areas from salvage sales stopped any cutting in the roadless portion, about half the volume and acreage, of this area. It was a hopeful, if only partial step. But still significant harvesting was just recently allowed on Roadshed, Marsh Bench and parts of Round Park adding the fragmentation of these wild forests.

In a 1993 LANDSAT satellite photo, Forest Service clearcuts on the Uintas are easily seen and more are planned--many in roadless areas. The Forest Service has admitted that most future timber harvesting will be in currently roadless areas simply because other timber potential has already been overharvested. Round Park is just the beginning. Salvage or not ,the Forest Service has shown no inclination to chart a fresh course allowing wildness to define the Uintas.

Minerals

Leasing means development. Early in 1994 Amerac Energy Company was authorized to construct a road and well four miles into the roadless Main Fork of the Bear River at about 10,000 feet. The proposal calls for a 138 foot high rig to drill 17,000 feet below a three acre well pad, with its attendant toxic mud pit. A crew of 55 would drive 15 loads daily for four weeks; diesel engines would run the drilling rig and generate halogen light. The Utah Wilderness Association appealed this decision, but it was denied. Amerac has since cleared the roadway into the wild Main Fork. The roadless is area now marred by roadcuts, trucks, graders, fences and culverts.

There are already two oil fields on the North Slope. In thirty years, the Bridger Lake Field has produced 12 million barrels of oil (approximately 20 hours of U.S. demand). In 1987 development of the Hickey-Table Mountain Field in the lower Henry's Fork forever fragmented this lower drainage with roads, drilling pads, and collection plants.

Yet most geologists generally feel that the Uintas' Precambrian origin precludes significant oil reserves. U.S. Geological Survey reports in 1983 and 1988 and the 1994 Forest Service North Slope Oil and Gas Leasing EIS note the vast majority of the mountain range has low potential for oil and gas discovery, with estimates ranging from 9 minutes to 2 days of oil at present U.S. consumption rates. One study noted that a very small field of 35,000 barrels might be found on the North Slope roadless area and over 90% of the proposed exploratory well on the North Slope will occur on the far northern fringe of the forest well north of any of the undeveloped landscape. Nonetheless, the Forest Service recently proposed to lease almost 200,000 acres of National Forest lands for oil and gas development.

The Utah Wilderness Association challenged this decision, forcing the Forest Service to withdraw the leasing decision on the roadless area and to prepare a separate analysis of oil and gas potential in roadless areas. This analysis is expected soon and will test the Forest Service commitment to ecosystem management.

Grazing

Livestock grazing poses another threat to the mountains. The Uintas are marked by 43 cattle allotments and 34 sheep allotments, with over 12 allotments and 13,000 sheep munching and trampling primarily within the designated Wilderness and adjacent unroaded terrain. Because of this, it is estimated that less than 40% of the Uintas are in good ecological condition. The victims include native Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep (susceptible to diseases spread by domestic sheep), coyote, cougar, and the ghosts of grizz and gray golf, targeted because they are predators.

Free Flowing Rivers

The Uintas harbor the headwaters of all of Utah's major river systems--the Provo, the 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. Unfortunately, the Uintas have already born the brunt of myopic water development.

Whereas the Ashley National Forest has identified five river segments on the South Slope asHdwtrs Main Fork Weber Riv.jpg (29197 bytes)eligible for Wild and Scenic River Act evaluation, the Wasatch has identified only one small segment of the Stillwater Fork as eligible! Hundreds of miles of free flowing rivers, coursing through subalpine forests inhabited by pine marten, great grey owls and black bears, rimmed by 12,000 foot peaks, were found to have no outstanding traits-- "run-of-the-mill" rivers!

Characteristically, the Wasatch National Forest got trapped into thinking recreationally rather ecologically.

Wildlife

Nearly 500 species of fish, amphibians, birds and mammals inhabit the Uintas--Utah’s most biologically diverse area. Interior forest species, wide ranging ungulates, a remarkable plethora of song birds, forest owls, goshawk, osprey and carnivores such as coyotes, cougar, black bear, lynx and a few wolverine. Sandhill and whooping cranes and bald eagle migrate through the Uintas. Grizz and wolf were found in the Uintas and now cling to our imaginations and our willingness to allow them back to their homeland. 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. Introduction of non-native species like Mountain Goats could harm native vegetation and detract from the p[purpose of wilderness to provide habitat for native wild species. Wildlife "management" must emphasize natural processes, not the fishing pole or rifle, and should protect native species, including the large carnivores.

To that extent we have proposed a wildlife preserve on the main block of the Uintas and a native cutthroat trout refugia on the 100 square mile drainage of the Yellowstone River on the south slope. A return of native fisheries, bison, grizz and wolf would signal an unparalleled recovery and vision only rarely achieved.

Roadless/Wilderness 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, critical roadless lands were not designated. About 30,000 acres spreading across the North Slope from the Stillwater Fork of the Bear River to the Blacks Fork were not considered and are now threatened by oil and gas development (Amerac). The lower West Fork of Beaver Creek was ignored and now faces the Round Park debacle. Ashley Creek, the Whiterocks, Sheep Creek and Dry Fork represent the 100,000 acres of the 11,000 foot Bollies. No timber, no oil and gas and presently closed to motorized traffic the logic of its exclusion has escaped all observers.

West of Mirror Lake sits the vast unprotected western reaches of the Uintas, the upper drainages of the Provo and Weber Rivers. Here lies a subalpine forested wonderland dotted with small meadows, deep canyons, lakes and ponds. These additions assure a large, wild and undeveloped landscape will be protected for its inherent natural biodiversity. It is an ecosystem-based view of wildland rather than a recreation-production view of wilderness.

Click here to learn more about the Lakes Roadless Area:Learn About The Mt. Watson Proposed Wilderness Area!

A Uintas vision is braced by Aldo Leopold's profound advice: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." Imagine an integral High Uintas defined by wildness, not board feet, animal unit months or full creels. Imagine a mountain defined by the creation of life, not the production of resources.

The Uintas need your voice! Only if the Forest Service and State of Utah hear from concerned citizens can there be any hope of ecologically based management for the High Uintas Ecosystem, so take action!

The High Uintas Preservation Council is working diligently for the Uintas. Please considerjoining!

We would love to hear your suggestions and opinions!

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