THE LA SAL CANYONS WILDERNESS

Mid-July, 1957. Noon. A ranger at Arches National Park takes refuge from the 110-degree heat under the shade of his housetrailer's brush awning, and observes the 12,000-foot-high Sierra La Sal rising off to the southeast. The ranger is Edward Abbey, an unknown writer whose book Desert Solitaire will one day make him famous. In a passage from that book, written nine years later, he recaptures the view from his "shaded ramada:"
The mountains are almost bare of snow except for patches within the couloirs on the northern slopes. Consoling nevertheless, those shrunken snowfields, despite the fact that they're twenty miles away by line of sight and six to seven thousand feet higher than where I sit. They comfort me with the promise that if the heat down here becomes less endurable I can escape for at least two days each week to the refuge of the mountains -- those islands in the sky surrounded by a sea of desert. The knowledge that refuge is available, when and if needed, makes the silent inferno of the desert more easily bearable. Mountains complement desert as desert complements city, as wilderness complements and completes civilization.

Edward Abbey is gone, buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the Arizona desert. But the mountains he once looked to for refuge remain on the horizon, just as they have for the past 20 million years.

Laccoliths and Salt Valleys

The La Sals are a "laccolithic" mountain range formed when molten volcanic rock, rising under great pressure from deep within the earth, uplifted the surface of the land into a group of huge domes. Later regionwide uplift, accelerating erosion, and nine periods of glaciation have sculpted those domes into elegant cone-shaped peaks cloaked with frost-rubble and ringed by glacial cirques and moraines.

The La Sal mountains not only complement the redrock desert below -- they have shaped it as a potter shapes clay. Rising 6,000 feet above the surrounding landscape, the mountains mine water from the clouds and store it in snowfields and lakes. Spring-fed perennial streams radiate in every direction from the La Sals, each entrenched in a winding canyon carved through colorful rock. The La Sals are surrounded by a labyrinth of their own design.

Further complicating the topography, eight salt-dome-collapse valleys ring the mountain range. Each marks the location of a large underground salt deposit, emplaced under great pressure, which arched the overlying rock layers much as laccoliths do. The uplifts caused extensive fracturing of surrounding rock. Erosion has widened these fractures into narrow corridors separating huge fins of stone. Exposed to erosion on two sides, many of the fins have developed natural openings -- windows, arches, and bridges. Within a 30-mile radius of the La Sal Mountains, there are hundreds of natural spans.

The rugged landscape which surrounds the La Sal mountain range is cut off from the outside world by the Colorado River on the north, the Dolores River on the east, and by the cliff walls of Spanish Valley on the west. Remote, rugged, intact, the entire region retains, to this day, the feel of primeval wilderness. This is true despite the existence of scattered human impacts. A paved road cuts across the western shoulder of the La Sals. Several dirt roads connect to encircle the mountain range at the 8,000 to 9,000-foot level. Parts of Castle and Professor valleys, which lie north of the mountain range along the Colorado River, are privately owned, as are several ranches on both the eastern and western slopes of the La Sals. Oil exploration and mining have left their mark in the glacial basins of the mountain range, and small portions of the Manti-La Sal National Forest have been logged.

Why, despite such intrusions, does the entire La Sal region retain its primitive feel? Merely to set foot in this landscape is to know the answer immediately. Human impacts are small in comparison to the scale of the land. The complexity of the terrain makes travel adventuresome and slow. There are few roads, and between them lie almost 110,000 acres of undeveloped BLM land.

The Magic of Water

In pointed contrast to the works of man, the great peaks of the La Sals dominate the landscape. They loom above cliff wall and canyon rim, dominate every vista, and peek into every photograph. Even in the canyons below, where the mountains themselves are not visible, one can feel, hear, and see their presence in the perpetual magic of flowing water.

That water -- together with the wildlife it supports and the scenery through which it flows -- has made the La Sals region a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. In the springtime, boaters flock to the Dolores River canyon, a candidate for wild and scenic river designation. Perennial streams and fine swimming holes attract hikers to Negro Bill, Mill Creek, and Beaver Creek canyons. More adventurous hikers scramble among the cracks and fins bordering the canyons, searching for rock art and natural spans. The region's dramatic stone monoliths, which include the Fisher Towers and Castle Rock, attract climbers from all over the country. There are excellent opportunities for fishing and hunting. Mill Creek, Beaver Creek, and Granite Creek are all stocked with trout. The La Sal Mountains provide summer range for large deer and elk herds which winter on the mesas and in the canyons below. The region is popular among deer hunters, and Utah Department of Wildlife Resources statistics suggest that it is one of the most productive cougar and bear management units in Utah.

Much of the La Sals region features terrain similar to that of Arches National Park, but with the added attractions of high mountain peaks, abundant water, and more diverse wildlife. Yet not one acre of the La Sals region has been protected as a national park, national monument, or wilderness area. For at least four decades, one of the most beautiful wild regions in the American West has gone unrecognized and unprotected even as it has been subjected to wave after wave of development threats.

Uranium prospectors swept through the La Sals region during the mining boom of the early 1950s, and mineral exploration has continued intermittently ever since, though rugged terrain has been an effective barrier to development. But with time, as miners and loggers steadily expand the road network, the region will lose its wilderness character. Only national park or wilderness designation can save it.

Wilderness Shutout

Not one acre of the La Sals region has been protected as a national park, national monument, or wilderness area. For at least four decades, one of the most beautiful wild regions in the American West has gone unrecognized and unprotected even as it has been subjected to wave after wave of development threats.
Most of the La Sals region is federally owned public land. The high peaks and forested slopes of the La Sals lie within the Manti-La Sal National Forest and are surrounded by BLM lands. During the 1970s, both the Forest Service and the BLM conducted inventories of roadless lands in the region. By 1983 both agencies had completed preliminary wilderness suitability recommendations. The results were astonishing. Of more than 150,000 acres of roadless lands originally under study in the La Sals region, neither agency could find a single acre worthy of wilderness designation. Instead they recommended that the entire region be left open to mining and logging.

While the Forest Service recommended that small portions of the mountain range be designated as "scenic areas" and managed for minimum impact, it was obvious that almost all of the range would be open to mining and logging. The agency began selling timber on lands bordering the La Sals roadless areas even before its wilderness review was complete.

Meanwhile, the BLM was conducting its own wilderness review, with identical results. After inventorying six roadless areas totalling 130,000 acres, the BLM could find only 10,000 acres worthy of further wilderness study. Even this was too much for Moab miner George Schultz. Schultz owned mining claims in the vicinity of the new WSA, and on December 15, 1980, he filed a protest of the decision creating it. BLM wilderness coordinator Diana Webb reviewed the protest, and on January 13, 1981, she drafted a letter notifying Schultz that the agency would eliminate its sole remaining WSA in the La Sals region. The letter travelled by certified mail, but it might as well have been delivered by hand. Addressed to her husband, George Schultz, its destination was Diana Webb's own mailbox.

By such means the BLM eliminated from wilderness study more than 80,000 acres of wild lands surrounding the La Sal Mountains. The lands dropped from further review contained some of the most beautiful scenery in all southern Utah. Mill Creek Canyon, which borders the La Sals on the east, is a miniature Yosemite Valley walled by soaring cliffs and flat-sided domes of bare rock. Its neighbor, Negro Bill Canyon, features waterfalls, swimming holes, and Morning Glory Natural Bridge -- the fifth widest natural span in America. North of the La Sal mountain range, in the Mary Jane Canyon and Fisher Towers roadless units, colorful cliffs and needle-sharp spires rise above the broad mirror of the Colorado River. Giant old-growth ponderosa pine and a rushing stream can be found in Beaver Creek Canyon, part of a 28,200-acre roadless area which straddles the 1,000-foot-deep Dolores River canyon north of the La Sals. North of the Dolores, lovely Granite Creek drops from pool to pool through a red-walled canyon filled with cottonwood and oak.

Bulldozers and Bomb Threats

If it is difficult to understand why the BLM omitted so much beautiful country from its wilderness inventory, the historical context helps. In 1979 and 1980, while the inventory was in progress, the West was in a mining boom. Since the construction of new roads -- essential to mineral exploration and development in previously unroaded areas -- is generally prohibited in wilderness study areas, the BLM's wilderness review was a constant frustration to miners. Inspired by Sagebrush Rebellion rhetoric, local mining boosters led a campaign against the wilderness review.

Matters came to a head when the BLM constructed a barrier to block off-road vehicle access to Negro Bill Canyon. At the direction of the Grand County commissioners, a county road crew promptly tore the barrier down. Twice the BLM replaced the barrier, and twice Grand County road crews destroyed it. A year later, the county commission sent a bulldozer into Mill Creek Canyon -- a deliberate violation of federal law.

Emboldened by this example, local miners began a campaign of intimidation which included vandalism and death threats directed at BLM staff and local environmentalists. The campaign was a success. By February 1981, not one acre in the La Sals region remained under study for wilderness designation.

Ironically, even as the BLM capitulated, the mining economy of Moab was collapsing. Between 1979 and 1983 worldwide energy prices fell precipitously. By 1986, mineral exploration and production had virtually ceased in Grand County.

When Utah environmentalists learned that the BLM had abandoned its wilderness review in the La Sal region, they immediately filed appeals. An administrative law court directed the BLM to reconsider its decisions, and the agency established small WSAs in Negro Bill and Mill Creek canyons. Neither WSA was recommended for wilderness in the agency's 1986 draft wilderness EIS, but following voluminous comment from citizens the agency announced that it would recommend some wilderness for both canyons.

It is clear that both the BLM and the Forest Service intend to leave nearly all of the La Sals region open to development. In doing so they will sacrifice the needs of hunters and wildlife -- of fishermen, climbers, swimmers, boaters, hikers, artists and poets -- to promote an industry which has, at least temporarily, ceased to exist in the region.

The Utah Wilderness Coalition Proposal

In 1985, Utah environmentalists conducted their own inventory of the La Sals region. After extensive reconnaissance, they identified 109,500 acres in seven roadless areas which eminently qualify for wilderness protection.

The Utah Wilderness Coalition's proposal is based on a conviction that the beauty of the La Sals region is far more valuable than its marginal resources of uranium, oil, molybdenum, or timber. Even while the mining industry has gone bust, protected natural areas such as Arches and Canyonlands National Parks have been a powerful economic asset to the small town of Moab and all southern Utah. Wilderness, too, is valuable as an asset for the tourist economy, and it is still more valuable as an asset to the quality of life for Utah residents and the entire nation.

No one has better explained this highest value of the La Sals wilderness than Edward Abbey. If a piece of this region should ever become part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, it will be in some measure a tribute to his wisdom and passion and poetry, which so beautifully complements and completes the canyon country of southern Utah. For those who have read and loved Abbey's books, some part of these mountains, this desert, will always be the Edward Abbey Wilderness.

Ray Wheeler

MILL CREEK UNIT

Highlights

Abundant clear water rushing down from the La Sal Mountains toward the Colorado River creates habitat for a wealth of wildlife and fine opportunities for backcountry recreation. Vertical slickrock walls dotted with rock art, inviting swimming holes at spillovers, and some sublime camping sites in groves of cottonwood make Mill Creek a worthwhile destination for out-of-state hikers, as well as a delightful backyard wilderness for Moabites. This unit of the La Sal Canyons wilderness connects the Negro Bill Canyon unit on the north to the Horse Mountain-Manns Peak national forest roadless area on the east. The BLM studied Mill Creek, but in 1986 failed to recommend it for designation. The agency is expected to recommend a 9,780-acre wilderness in 1990. The Coalition proposes designation for 15,700 acres to protect Mill Creek's water, wildlife, archeology, recreation, and scenery.

Geology and landforms

Four miles of Mill Creek's 20-mile course from the 12,000-foot peaks of the La Sal Mountains to the Colorado River are in this unit. Here the creek has cut an inviting, 400-foot-deep canyon among massive Navajo Sandstone fins and domes. The unit also includes Mill Creek's north fork and a major sidecanyon, Rill Creek, making 20 miles of perennial stream in all. Elevations vary from 4,200 feet at the confluence of Mill Creek and the North Fork on the west to 7,000 feet on the rims of Wilson and South mesas on the east.

Plant communities

Nearly 3,000 feet of relief takes you from a pinyon-juniper forest on Wilson Mesa through blackbrush and sagebrush benchlands to the lush cottonwood- and willow-lined streams. Large areas of slickrock lack any vegetation.

Wildlife

The extensive riparian vegetation in this unit provides habitat diversity for wildlife. Mill Creek supports several species of fish and a healthy range and number of macroinvertebrates (BLM, 1986). Ephemeral potholes in the slickrock support cryptobiotic tadpole and fairy shrimp. The BLM identifies 5,580 acres as crucial winter range for deer. The UDWR designates the western two-thirds of the unit as a peregrine falcon use area. Golden eagles and other raptors are also found here, as well as elk, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, and possibly black bears.

Archeology and history

Cultural inventories have not been completed within the BLM's WSA, yet the 25 recorded sites suggest the archeological significance of this area. Ancient campsites, rockshelters, and rock art panels are scattered throughout the unit, most of Archaic and Fremont age. Fine pictograph panels are found along the North Fork, which, one hopes, visitors will leave unscathed. Pothunters, however, have left their telltale soil mounds in caves and overhangs.

Recreation

An abundant water supply makes for excellent camping and hiking. Swimming and wading on hot summer afternoons are favorite activities; however, backpacking is best in spring and fall. Two pouroffs along the lower North Fork must be passed, although most of Mill Creek and its tributaries offer flat, gentle hiking. Access is also possible from the Sand Flats road above Rill Creek, a tributary of Mill Creek.

BLM recommendation

Mill Creek has a history of controversy. In 1980, soon after the BLM had proposed Mill Creek as a 10,320-acre WSA, a Grand County Commissioner led a group of flag-waving locals into the WSA and bulldozed a 100-yard scar. The BLM took no action against the self-styled sagebrush rebels. Instead, after receiving a three-sentence protest from a local mine developer, the BLM dropped the WSA. Utah conservationists appealed and regained WSA status for the unit in 1983, although the new 9,780-acre WSA left out lands up to 2 miles from the nearest significant human impacts. The BLM also cherrystemmed the lower North Fork from the WSA, despite the inadvisability of vehicle use above the lower pouroff. In its 1986 DEIS, the BLM recommended against wilderness, citing (in an informal addendum to the DEIS) its oil and gas potential. But an abundance of dry holes in nearby areas, drilled into the most likely producing horizons, suggests that the BLM has overrated the likelihood of hydrocarbon production. Public support for wilderness has been high and the agency will likely recommend its 9,780-acre WSA for wilderness in its final EIS.

Coalition proposal

We propose 15,700 acres of wilderness, including important benchlands on the rims above the main fork of Mill Creek. Our boundary takes in some insignificant intrusions: three miles of seismic lines between the forks of Mill Creek, old placer mining near Wilson Mesa, an old vehicle track north of Rill Creek, and several other minor vehicle ways. The many recreational, cultural, and scenic qualities of the unit coupled with its diverse wildlife make Mill Creek a prime candidate for wilderness designation.

NEGRO BILL CANYON UNIT

Highlights

Negro Bill Canyon is one of the most popular day hiking areas near Moab, lying only two and a half miles east of town off Highway 128. Hikers are attracted by the canyon's spectacular sandstone walls, flowing water, cottonwood trees, and Morning Glory Natural Bridge, one of the largest natural rock spans in the world. Fed by groundwater from rain and snow falling on the La Sal Mountains, Negro Bill Canyon's six miles of perennial stream are an oasis for flora and fauna. Negro Bill Canyon is wedged between Mill Creek on the south and Arches National Park (across the Colorado River) on the northwest. The BLM initially opposed wilderness but public support has apparently changed the agency's mind. The Coalition proposes 20,600 acres of wilderness to protect this treasure of running water, greenery, and slickrock just minutes from Moab.

Geology and landforms

The proposed wilderness unit is a triangle of slickrock with the rim of Negro Bill Canyon as the base on the south, the Colorado River gorge as the northwest side, and the 1200-foot cliff of Porcupine Rim dropping into Castle Valley as the northeast side. Negro Bill, Jackass, and Dripping Spring canyons cut east to west across the unit from the Porcupine Rim (at 5,400 to 7,000 feet) to the river gorge (at 4,000 feet). Navajo Sandstone fins and domes mark large areas of the unit. Most of the remainder is Kayenta Formation ledges and rims with Wingate Sandstone inner canyons in upper Negro Bill and Dripping Spring Canyon. Numerous springs and seeps provide a remarkable abundance of water.

Plant communities

Outside the large areas of slickrock, this unit is vegetated primarily with blackbrush and juniper. Six hundred acres of riparian growth line Negro Bill Canyon, and Aquilegia micrantha, a rare columbine, may be present in the colorful hanging gardens, according to the BLM.

Wildlife

Negro Bill Canyon's perennial stream and associated riparian vegetation provide important habitat for a great variety of wildlife, according to BLM data (1986). Beaver numbers have increased recently. Waterfowl, including mallard, blue-winged teal, and common merganser ducks, are seen even in summer. Bluehead sucker, roundtail chub, red shiner, fathead minnow and plains killifish are the most common native fish species. There are small numbers of game fish including large-mouth bass and green sunfish. The golden eagle is common in Negro Bill and the UDWR identifies the unit as a peregrine use area. The BLM identifies almost half of its WSA as critical deer winter range.

Archeology and history

A cowboy hideout and a petroglyph panel are known within the unit. The BLM estimates that the unit has 12 sites, 6 of which may be eligible for the National Register. Cultures known to have used the vicinity include Paleo-Indian, Desert Archaic, Fremont, Anasazi, and Ute. The canyon is named for William Granstaff, a farmer who was one of Moab's earliest settlers.

Recreation

Easily accessible from Moab, this canyon is a popular recreation site. The BLM (1986, p. 14) notes that a commercial horseback operation takes trips to Morning Glory Natural Bridge, and that "school groups frequently hike the canyon in conjunction with environmental studies."

BLM recommendation

The BLM recommended none of its 7,620-acre WSA in its 1986 DEIS, deferring to past local antagonisms that are no longer a factor. The final EIS will probably recommend all of the WSA. The BLM also alleged that a wilderness boundary would be difficult to identify; however, if the boundaries were expanded to include all the natural area surrounding the canyon (as required by the inventory policy), boundary definition would be much easier. The BLM (1986, p. 10) claimed that the WSA is moderately favorable for oil and gas, potash and uranium. However, in the Grand RMP (1983, p. 1-18 to 20), the BLM identified no areas of known ore grade uranium, no known potash deposits, and no oil and gas potential in the unit. Mineral prospecting in the area has not been successful and numerous dry holes indicate a low potential for hydrocarbons.

Coalition proposal

The Coalition proposes wilderness designation for the 20,600-acre Negro Bill Canyon unit, including the BLM's WSA, lower Jackass Canyon, and benchlands extending north and east to Porcupine Rim. Our boundary cherrystems two vehicle and mountain bike routes on Mat Martin Point and includes all lands that are in a natural condition north of the Sand Flats road.

MARY JANE CANYON UNIT

Highlights

The mesas that finger off of the La Sal Mountains between Castle Valley and the Fisher Towers guard a seldom visited slickrock canyon with a perennial stream. We propose a 24,200-acre wilderness unit that takes in this canyon (above the private lands at the Professor Valley Ranch), as well as part of the scenic Richardson Amphitheater and the famous rock towers of Castle Rock and the Priest and Nuns.

Geology and landforms

The broad, cliff-rimmed valley of Professor Creek, known in its upper reaches as Mary Jane Canyon, forms the center of the unit. The canyon is eroded into the White Rim Sandstone; the gentler valley slopes are Chinle and Moenkopi formations. Fisher Mesa with its sheer Wingate Sandstone cliffs reaches out to the north of the valley from the uplands of the La Sal Mountains, and Parriot and Adobe mesas separate the valley from Castle Valley to the south. Remnants of the latter cliff have been eroded into the spectacular rock towers called Castle Rock (Castleton Tower) and the Priest and Nuns. The Totem Pole, another rock spire, rises immediately south of Onion Creek below the Fisher Towers.

Plant communities

The lower slopes have a scattering of blackbrush and other desert shrubs, with pinyon pine and juniper; on the mesas sagebrush flats alternate with pinyon-juniper forest. Much of the pinyon-juniper forest on Fisher Mesa (outside the unit) has been chained. Cottonwood, tamarisk, and other riparian species grow along Professor Creek, which is fed by springs higher in the mountains, and Douglas fir and aspen are found in the uppermost canyons.

Wildlife

A dozen or so elk and larger numbers of deer winter in Professor Valley. A few deer remain in the unit yearlong, whereas most deer and elk move up into the adjacent national forest during the summer.

Archeology and history

A historic wagon road connected Professor Valley and Castle Valley by way of the pass between Castle Rock and Adobe Mesa, but the route is little evident now. A petroglyph panel is located within the unit and has figures of bighorn and other creatures.

Recreation

Mary Jane Canyon merited mention in two guidebooks: Kelsey (1986a) calls it "a good example of a canyon narrows" and Barnes (1977) notes "the endless examples of unusual and lovely sandstone erosional forms." Castle Rock is well known among rock climbers as a spectacular, but not extreme, vertical climb. The narrows of Onion Creek, which divides this unit from the Fisher Towers unit, is also worth exploring.

BLM recommendation

The BLM dropped Mary Jane Canyon from its 1979 intensive wilderness inventory. The agency's field investigator found the unit to be primarily in a natural condition, but claimed that it lacked outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation. This determination was based on the alleged lack of topographic or vegetative screening. (When conservationists appealed similar BLM decisions in other inventory units, the IBLA ruled that the BLM's definition of solitude was excessively narrow.)

Coalition proposal

We propose a 24,200-acre wilderness unit, taking in the undeveloped canyon and valley and reaching up into the undisturbed portions of the mesa tops. Our proposal excludes proposed range facilities and maintained access routes on Adobe Mesa and chainings on Fisher Mesa. The canyon itself offers fine solitude as it twists through the eroded valley; the upper part of the canyon is somewhat difficult to traverse (see Kelsey, 1986a) and solitude is practically guaranteed here. The remainder of the unit is more open, but as in the Fisher Towers to the north the openness only adds to the sense of aloneness. The BLM's criteria for assessing solitude ignore the opportunities for exploring found here. Our proposal includes several old, unused vehicle ways that are largely reclaimed. Ways leading up from the Professor Valley Ranch, dating from the uranium exploration days of the 1950s, are largely revegetated or eroded away and are difficult to locate on the ground. A few small, abandoned uranium pits are found in the Chinle Formation north of the creek near the ranch. A vehicle way that is receiving some use loops through the Richardson Amphitheater off of Highway 128, reaching as far as the knolls below Fisher Mesa. This track was created by repeated ORV use, mostly motorcycles. It serves no comprehensible purpose and should be blocked off and turned back over to nature, which would quickly reclaim it.

FISHER TOWERS UNIT

Highlights

The fluted, dark-red spires of the Fisher Towers rise above the Colorado River 20 miles northeast of Moab. The combination of the sparkling river, spectacular redrock cliffs, and the snowcapped La Sal Mountains soaring above 12,000 feet creates a fairytale picture. One of the best known geologic formations in southern Utah, the Fisher Towers are also well known for advanced rock climbing. Unknown to many, however, is pristine 5-mile-long Waring Canyon, which begins just behind the cliffs north of the towers and drains into the Dolores River. The BLM exaggerated impacts and dropped this unit in the initial inventory. The Coalition's 15,100-acre proposal excludes peripheral impacts and includes the imposing Towers and Waring Canyon with its stream.

Geology and landforms

Reminiscent of ancient Gothic cathedrals, the soaring redrock spires of the Fisher Towers are carved from siltstone of the Moenkopi and Cutler Formations. The Titan, tallest of the colorful formations, stands 900 feet above its base. Waring Canyon projects straight north from a Wingate Sandstone cliff that divides the unit, Richardson's Amphitheater slopes down to the Colorado River in the west, and perennial Onion Creek with its redrock grottoes winds in and out among badlands and cliffs along the southern border. Elevations vary from 4,400 to 7,000 feet.

Plant communities

Pinyon-juniper populates the eastern part of the unit while the western part is primarily barren cliffs and badlands. Richardson's Amphitheater, the lowest elevation in the unit, is covered with the blackbrush vegetation type, and riparian habitat follows the stream banks of Waring Canyon and Onion Creek. The scenic Onion Springs Badlands and rugged cliffs harbor an endangered plant community, and the western tip of the unit has the threatened Cycladenia humilis var. jonesii.

Wildlife

The northern half of this unit has been classified by the UDWR as a peregrine falcon use area. Sheer cliff walls provide prime nesting spots for this endangered species and other raptors. The UDWR has also identified the south edge as critical deer winter habitat.

Recreation

Foot travel ranges from the very easy to the extremely challenging. A gently graded, maintained foot trail begins at a parking lot at the Fisher Towers and winds around the pinnacles. The highest tower, the 900-foot-tall Titan, is listed in Roper and Steck's Fifty Classic Climbs of North America (Sierra Club Books, 1979); it was not climbed until 1962 when a National Geographic team spent three days ascending the monolith (see National Geographic, November, 1962). Eric Bjornstad, in Desert Rock (Chockstone Press, Denver, 1988), gives an extensive writeup of technical climbing routes in Fisher Towers as well. To the north, Waring Canyon also offers outstanding hikes. The climb to the edge of Waring Mesa gives panoramic views of the Colorado River and the La Sal Mountains as well as the green meadows of Fisher Valley and the red sandstone cliffs of Richardson's Amphitheater. The easiest access is from the end of a graded dirt road off of Highway 128 to the picnic area and trailhead at the Fisher Towers. A road also follows Onion Creek at the south boundary of the unit, and Waring Canyon can be reached via a gravel road which leaves Highway 128 at the south end of Dewey Bridge. For details of the hike to Panorama Point see Barnes (1977).

BLM recommendation

In 1979, the BLM dropped the Fisher Towers unit from its wilderness inventory. The agency's brief field investigation, conducted by just one person, cursorily noted that, "The red rock cliffs here are striking." It went on to claim that the area was heavily impacted. The agency could simply have drawn a boundary to exclude the most significant human impact, instead of dropping the entire unit from study.

Coalition proposal

We propose that 15,100 acres be designated as wilderness. Our boundary excludes the significant human impacts. We include a cherrystem for the 2-1/2-mile-long graded dirt road from Highway 128 to the picnic area below the Fisher Towers. Our northern boundary is along an ORV road that follows a powerline, and the eastern boundary is the Top of the World ORV route; both routes are regularly used and provide good access to the unit. Our boundary also excludes the drill sites and chained areas that the BLM cited in dropping its roadless area from study. Only a few old seismic lines and drill holes are within our boundary and do not constitute a significant intrusion. A BLM planning document (1983, p. 1-18, 20) indicates low potential for uranium, coal, potash, or oil and gas. This wild area is as spectacular as they come and would be one of the most easily accessible wilderness areas in the state.

SEWEMUP MESA UNIT

Highlights

Sewemup Mesa is perhaps the single most ecologically pristine area in the region, having been isolated from development by its almost impassable belt of encircling sandstone cliffs. Most of the 21,335-acre unit lies in Colorado but a 600-acre portion of the Roc Creek drainage, a steep-walled canyon lined with Douglas fir and ponderosa pine, reaches into Utah. The unit is contiguous to 9,500 acres of national forest roadless land on the Manti-La Sal National Forest.

Geology and landforms

The most striking feature of Sewemup Mesa is its band of thousand-foot-high Wingate Sandstone cliffs, which encircle more than three-fourths of the unit. These cliffs rise out of the magnificent slickrock gorge of the Dolores River, towering above Sinbad Valley. The cliffs extend west up into the La Sal Mountains, forming Sinbad Ridge which forms the north wall of the 1,500-foot-deep gorge of Roc Creek. These features are named for Sinbad the Sailor and the giant bird of Arab legend.

Plant communities and wildlife

Huge ponderosa pines line the drainages on the mesa top and grow directly from the sandstone terraces along the mesa's western cliffs. The brilliant red walls of Roc Creek canyon are framed by green forests of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine. A pinyon-juniper forest covers the mesa. Peregrine falcons and golden eagles nest on the cliffs, and bald eagles winter along the Dolores River at the unit's eastern edge. Mountain lions prowl the mesa, and much of Sinbad Ridge and the mesa's lower slopes are important big game winter range for deer and elk.

Archeology and history

Sewemup Mesa derives its name from the cattle rustling days of the McCarty Gang. The rustlers are said to have burnt off and "sewed up" the cattle's rightful brands.

Recreation

Few places offer more exhilarating solitude than the edge of Sewemup Mesa's cliffs. In contrast to the mesa's towering heights, Roc Creek plummets 1,000 feet straight down, forming the largest canyon draining east from the La Sal Mountains. Access to the unit is primitive roads on the northwest (Beaver Creek area) and east (Gateway area).

BLM recommendation

The Colorado BLM recommended 18,835 acres of its 19,140-acre WSA for wilderness designation. But its WSA includes none of Sinbad Ridge or the Roc Creek drainage and does not extend into Utah.

Coalition proposal

We support the recommendations of Colorado conservationists for a 21,335-acre wilderness unit, including 600 acres within Utah. Our proposed unit includes all of Sinbad Ridge and the deepest part of the Roc Creek canyon, thus adding to the diversity of the unit and completing the connection with national forest roadless lands in the La Sals. Our boundary takes in a number of abandoned, impassable, and improperly mapped roads along Sinbad Ridge (mostly in Colorado) and in the saddle separating Sewemup Mesa and Sinbad Ridge. Our boundary follows the southern rim of Roc Creek canyon, adding 2,500 acres to the BLM's WSA and forming a topographically complete boundary along the rim instead of following the section lines of the national forest boundary.

BEAVER CREEK UNIT

Highlights

Beaver Creek flows out of the northern La Sal Mountains through a 12-mile-long slickrock gorge before emptying into the Dolores River. Located on the eastern border of Utah 25 miles northeast of Moab, the Beaver Creek wilderness unit also includes 6 miles of the Dolores River which have been recommended by the Park Service for Wild River designation. Cottonwood Canyon, with its tributaries Thompson and Burro canyons, and bench lands around Sevenmile and Steamboat mesas are also included. Peregrine falcon, elk, and deer find critical habitat in this remote area. Beaver Creek links the Granite Creek wilderness unit on the north and the Fisher Towers unit on the west to the Horse Mountain-Manns Peak national forest roadless area in the La Sal Mountains to the southwest. The BLM did not designate this stunningly diverse and beautiful area for wilderness study. The Coalition proposes designation for 28,200 acres of BLM land and 5,450 acres of adjacent national forest land.

Geology and landforms

Barnes (1977) describes Beaver Creek canyon as a "lovely, primitive, wooded gorge that winds between convoluted slickrock walls for 12 miles before joining the Dolores River gorge." The deep inner canyon exposes sheer walls of red Wingate Sandstone. The Kayenta Formation forms wide intermediate benches, and rising above are isolated mesas of pink, orange, and white Navajo and Entrada sandstones. The entire unit is tilted up to the La Sal Mountain laccolith to the south.

Plant communities

The unit contains many miles of riparian vegetation along the Dolores River and along Beaver and Cottonwood creeks. A transition zone from the Dolores River to the La Sal Mountains, the unit encompasses a wide variety of vegetation types. From low elevation blackbrush to mid-elevation pinyon-juniper, the unit reaches up into aspen, ponderosa pine and oak brush in the more mountainous south.

Wildlife

This unit possesses a "healthy and relatively undisturbed ecosystem with outstanding wildlife values," according to the National Park Service (1979). The endangered bald eagle lives in these canyons. The UDWR identifies the northern third of the unit as a peregrine use area and the southern half as critical deer winter range. Elk winter in upper Beaver Creek canyon and deer winter north of the Dolores River (BLM, 1983a, p. 1-16). The UDWR is introducing desert bighorn sheep into the area surrounding the Dolores due to its favorable habitat and relative isolation. Trout live in Beaver Creek.

Recreation

The Dolores River provides whitewater boating which is "challenging without being too severe" (National Park Service, 1979). Beaver Creek and eight other major sidecanyons afford outstanding hiking, backpacking, photography and nature study opportunities. Hiking and camping are excellent on the grassy benches with expansive vistas across the Dolores Triangle to the north, of the La Sal Mountains in the south, and to Colorado's Uncompahgre Plateau in the east. Access is by a graded road down the Dolores from Gateway, Colorado, to the mouth of Beaver Creek; the Castleton-Gateway gravel road into the upper end of Beaver Creek Canyon (avoiding posted private lands); and the Onion Creek Road to the head of Cottonwood Canyon and Thompson Canyon. Barnes (1977) describes the hike down Beaver Creek canyon; Nichols (1986) describes the float trip down the Dolores River.

BLM recommendation

In 1979, at the same time the Park Service was recommending the Dolores River for Wild River designation, the BLM was releasing the river canyon and surrounding lands as "clearly and obviously lacking wilderness character." The BLM exaggerated the extent of impacts within the unit and failed to consider a study area boundary which would have excluded major impacts.

Coalition proposal

We propose a 28,200-acre Beaver Creek wilderness unit along with 5,450 acres of adjacent national forest wild lands. Our proposal excludes ranch and farm development at the mouth of Beaver Creek as well as chainings on the rim of Beaver Creek and uranium impacts on Blue Chief Mesa and Polar Mesa. Old vehicle ways on Sevenmile Mesa are reclaiming naturally and are included in our proposal. On the east, the boundary follows the edge of old mining activities midway down the side of the mesa. Mineral prospects appear to be marginal, according to information in BLM documents (1983).

GRANITE CREEK UNIT

Highlights

Granite Creek, a perennial stream that supports a trout fishery, flows into the Dolores River about 30 miles northeast of Moab. Hikes down Granite Creek can continue through Beaver Creek into the La Sal Mountains and across Mill Creek to Moab. The BLM refused to study this unit despite the recommendation of Colorado BLM staff. We recommend 5,100 acres of wilderness in Utah, with an additional 9,200 acres in Colorado.

Geology and landforms

Lower Granite Creek is a dramatic red Wingate Sandstone canyon, dotted with picturesque fins, columns, windows, and buttes. The canyon is named for exposures of ancient granitic rocks in the canyon bottom. The higher, eastern end of the canyon, which is cut into the Chinle and Cutler formations, is relatively open and straight, whereas the western end where it joins the Dolores River is so serpentine that the stream runs 7 miles to cover 3 straight-line miles.

Plant communities

The uplands above the canyon are covered with pinyon pine and juniper, with some ponderosa pine in the higher elevations. Lower down, in the western part of the unit, shrubs and grasses take over. The perennial stream in the canyon supports riparian species such as cottonwood and willow, with box elder and Gambel oak in drier sites.

Wildlife

Granite Creek has trout and several species of nongame fish, according to the BLM (1983a, p. 3-15). The unit provides critical winter range for mule deer and elk. Black bears, mountain lions, peregrine falcons, and bald and golden eagles also inhabit the unit.

Archeology and history

An old homestead is located along Granite Creek in the center of the unit. Its remnants of fences, corrals, and buildings add a historical flavor and do not detract from the canyon's overall appearance of naturalness.

Recreation

Granite Creek is a popular day hike for Dolores River boaters. A BLM staff report notes that the unit's "riparian vegetation, perennial stream, interesting and varied geology and wildlife provide for a very high capability to attract hikers and backpackers." The unit is part of the remote Dolores Triangle area known for its excellent backcountry hunting. Views from the upland slopes take in the high peaks of the La Sal Mountains to the south, and the desert slopes to the northwest.

BLM recommendation

The BLM did not establish a WSA for Granite Creek, despite its acknowledgment (in the 1980 intensive inventory decision) that "the unit appears to be generally natural." The agency claimed that the unit lacked outstanding opportunities for solitude. It offered, instead, to consider administrative designations such as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). But the BLM did not consider an ACEC for Granite Creek in its 1983 Grand Resource Area management plan and gave it no protection from mining, ORVs, or other development.

Coalition proposal

The riparian plant community and steep-walled canyon provide excellent opportunities for solitude in the upper and middle parts of the canyon. Farther downstream, the sharply meandering canyon with 200- to 300-foot-high walls also provides outstanding solitude. The BLM's inventory unit boundary traced an old road south from the north rim down into the canyon to the site of the old homestead, then followed the creek east to the south fork, eventually leaving the canyon. These roads are overgrown, blocked by landslides, and are washed out in three places. Our boundary incorporates these eroded roads and follows the north rim of the canyon, thus protecting the outstanding features of the canyon.