THE WESTWATER CANYON WILDERNESS

As the Colorado River enters Utah, it carves the first of the desert canyons for which it is famous, cutting deep into black Precambrian bedrock as well as exposing the bright reds and oranges of the overlying sandstones. These canyons draw over 20,000 boaters annually, most to tackle Westwater Canyon's challenging rapids, but others to delight in the scenery and wildlife of the gentle Ruby and Horsethief canyons upstream from Westwater.

The Colorado River wilderness encompasses two units, Black Ridge Canyons and Westwater Canyon, which include the stretch of river running from below Loma, Colorado to near Cisco, Utah. Our proposal will safeguard one of the most accessible wild canyons of the Colorado River. Boat launches are found at the Westwater Ranger Station and at the Loma highway interchange. The tributary canyons can be reached via Glade Park, Colorado, on county roads leading west to Coates Creek.

The River

Rather than skirt the broad uplift of the Uncompahgre Plateau, the Colorado River grinds straight through for 40 miles, carving Horsethief Canyon out of soft sediments, then moving through the underlying strata until in Ruby Canyon it reaches the black Precambrian granites that form the core of the plateau. The river then dives abruptly into the depths of Westwater Canyon, cutting a tight corridor through shimmering, smooth, fluted black schist. (After its exposure in Westwater, this bedrock does not reappear until the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon.) Far above are the bright red walls of the Wingate Sandstone and the cream-colored Entrada Sandstone. The short and riotous journey through Westwater ends in the gentle desert near Cisco.

Recreationists flock to the river from April through October. More than 15,000 user-days are recorded annually in Westwater Canyon, and 7,000 in Ruby and Horsethief canyons. Commercial outfitters offer trips ranging from one to four days in length. River runners test their skill against rapids with names such as Sock-It-To-Me, Skull, Big Hummer, and Funnel Falls.

Hikers wander through a maze of twisting tributary canyons, in which perennial streams display plunge pools and waterfalls. Black Ridge Canyons includes innumerable spires and pinnacles, a concentration of natural arches surpassed only by Arches National Park, and a huge 300-foot cavern cut by a stream meander in Mee Canyon. In fact, the Black Ridge Canyons unit is under study by the National Park Service as a potential addition to Colorado National Monument.

Biotic Refuge

Species of wildlife that have been largely extirpated from native habitat elsewhere have found a home in these river canyons. Four species of threatened or endangered fish (humpback chub, Colorado River squawfish, bonytail chub, and razorback sucker) have been found in the Colorado River within the proposed wilderness. Numerous bald eagles winter along the river; this stretch includes the only pair of nesting bald eagles in Utah. Golden eagles nest at various sites within the area. Several pairs of great blue herons also nest along the river. The area is along the whooping crane's migration route. Even a rare butterfly (Papilio indraminori) has made its home here.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife has reintroduced desert bighorn sheep into the Black Ridge Canyons. The herd, now comprising 30-40 animals, was opened to limited hunting in 1988. Mountain lion roam the rugged recesses of the area. A large herd of elk winters on the south side of the river along the state line, which along with numerous deer draws many hunters.

The mesas and slopes of the area are covered with pinyon-juniper forest. Cottonwoods, willows, and tamarisk grow along the river and in the tributary canyons. Sagebrush, single-leaf ash, and mountain mahogany are found in drier areas, and occasional aspen grow near water sources.

Fossils and Hideouts

Several Fremont Indian rock art sites and campsites have been discovered within the area. Historic sites include the Miner's Cabin, built around 1912, a cave that was used as a hideout by two outlaws around 1913, and the grave of one of the outlaws, all in the Westwater unit. Black Ridge Canyons may hold paleontological interest, since it contains the same geologic formations that have yielded fossils in nearby Rabbit Valley.

Wild and Scenic

This is one of the few wild areas given something close to adequate recognition by the federal government. In 1975, Congress directed that this stretch of river be studied for possible inclusion in the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The study, completed in 1979, recommended the entire stretch from Loma to Cisco (and beyond) for designation under the categories of Wild and Scenic. As of 1990, legislation was working its way through Congress that would designate a part of this stretch as a Wild River, but included no Scenic River designation for the remainder.

The BLM's Utah and Colorado offices have recommended most of the qualifying area for wilderness, leaving out only a few thousand acres on the periphery of Westwater Canyon. A 2,870-acre parcel in the southwest corner of the Westwater WSA was left out because of an infrequently used jeep trail; the local grazing permittee (Mountain Island Ranch) supports inclusion of the trail in the wilderness. Other areas were omitted merely because the BLM anticipated difficulty with locating boundaries -- hardly an appropriate criterion. One of the deletions is well defined by a cliff face and mesa; another occurs in an area with little visitor use. Only minimal management techniques such as posting signs and constructing ORV barriers would be needed. Another parcel was not recommended because of "sights and sounds" of nearby ranching, impacts that Coalition observers believe have been exaggerated.

The Utah Wilderness Coalition Proposal

We propose 37,600 acres of wilderness in two units; an additional 68,800 acres lie in the Colorado portion of Black Ridge Canyons. The Coalition endorses the BLM's proposed wilderness boundaries and road closures for the Black Ridge and Black Ridge West WSAs in Colorado, joining the two WSAs into one unit (Utah acreage: 5,100). The adjacent 32,500-acre Westwater Canyon unit is separated from Black Ridge Canyons by a dirt road and is located entirely within Utah. Together, these units will protect the only undeveloped segment of the Colorado River under BLM jurisdiction.

Mark Pearson

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