THE ROCKWELL WILDERNESS

The proposed Rockwell wilderness is 13,400 acres of shifting sand dunes interspersed with juniper and pinyon pine trees on the more stable sand ridges and sagebrush or grass on the flats. The area is a graben valley, a downthrust block surrounded by higher ground, covered with alluvium and sand. The free-moving sand dunes are a special treat for visitors here, offering changing displays of color and form. Rockwell also supports a surprising array of wildlife and is home for a unique four-wing saltbush, Atriplex canescens, which is found nowhere else.

Access to the proposed Rockwell wilderness is from Utah Highway 6, 32 miles north of Delta. Turn west then, in three miles, southwest into the Little Sahara Recreation Area. Rockwell is the northwest corner of the BLM-administered Recreation Area and is easily reached from the White Sands Campground.

Sand Dunes and Scientific Values

The Rockwell portion of the Little Sahara Recreation Area is mostly used for nature study, photography, day hiking, camping, sightseeing, horseback riding, hunting, and rock climbing. While the unit is relatively small, it provides ample room for visitors to find solitude among the dunes and rolling hills. Large juniper trees and gnarled snags in the Rockwell area make good photographic studies. As the BLM has stated (1986), "These picturesque trees, the unusual Atriplex species, and other forms of plant and animal life existing in a natural state in the sand dune environment combine to provide outstanding opportunities for scientific, educational, and recreational uses." The agency further states that "Nature study and photography opportunities are very good, primarily due to the presence of unique sand dunes and the accompanying wildlife and vegetation ecosystem."

The Rockwell area provides habitat for 115 bird species, 48 mammal species, 15 reptile species, and 1 amphibian, according to the BLM. The endemic four-wing saltbush, Atriplex canescens, grows as tall as 12 feet and is thought to have been widespread at one time. However, apparently due to heavy grazing throughout the West, it has retreated to this single isolated spot. While not currently listed as a threatened or endangered plant, this giant saltbush is a likely candidate for eventual listing. The relict plant community in this area also includes ancient junipers, big sagebrush, and other sand dune species, all in a natural condition and unaffected by human intrusion. Because this community is a remnant of the vegetation that once covered much of the western deserts, it is of special interest to botanists.

The Utah Wilderness Coalition Proposal

Almost all of our proposed 13,400-acre wilderness is a designated BLM Natural Area that is closed to motor vehicles. Our proposal also includes the natural part of the sand dunes south of this area. These dunes are seldom used by ORVs and are a logical part of the wilderness. There is only a single, one-mile-long vehicle way intruding into the proposed Rockwell wilderness, and it was declared by the BLM to be "substantially unnoticeable." Thus, the entire area is in a natural condition.

The proposed wilderness is bordered by the 60,000-acre Little Sahara Recreation Area, two-thirds of which is available for ORV use and would remain open even if the Rockwell area were designated wilderness. The BLM has not proposed wilderness protection for any of the Rockwell area, yet is applying restrictions on ORVs within its natural area that are similar to those for wilderness areas.

The BLM (1986) cites a "low likelihood of recovery" of locatable minerals and a "low favorability" for oil and gas. In the absence of mineral and ORV conflicts, the Rockwell area should be designated as wilderness, thus conferring a greater degree of protection than the current administrative designation.

Mike Medberry

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