Mt. Watson Proposed Wilderness
Where was one of the first Utah sightings of infamous "Bigfoot"? Obviously, it was in one of the most wild places in Utah... the upper reaches of the Weber River! Well, we all know it wasn't "Bigfoot" that was spotted there, although one can imagine the reactions to the tracks of the more probable large bear wandering in and out of willows and wetlands tucked among the dense spruce and pine forests. While many people think of the High Uintas as running from Mirror Lake east to Flaming Gorge (see HUPC newsletter Jan./Feb. 1997 for a detailed history and description of the Uintas), one of the most wild and accessible portions of the Uintas is west of the Mirror Lake Highway, in country dominated by Bald Mountain and Mt. Watson. This is the vast forested country that hides the Weber and upper Provo River drainages.
Wilderness and Wildness
This is incised and convoluted country. It is still wild enough that it can't be encircled by a car in a day. You can feel its size and diversity by a drive from Kamas up the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway and west over the dirt road to Whitney reservoir. Or try driving from Oakley up the Weber River to Smith-Morehouse or Holiday Park. In between all of this is a roadless area of over 100,000 acres; outside of the roadless country adjacent to the High Uintas Wilderness, it comprises the largest chunk of roadless Forest Service land left in Utah!
Stroll up or down any of the major drainages of what the Forest Service calls the Lakes Backcountry and you will wonder why such a wild place as this was never included in the Utah Wilderness Act of 1984. The slickrock cascades of the Middle Fork of the Weber, one of the wildest spots in the Uintas, will reward you with utter silence except for coyote families, moose, black bear, and pine marten.
The upper benches of the Middle Fork are dotted with dozens of small lakes, wet meadows, and beautiful ancient stands of spruce, creating a patchy landscape of open rock slopes, towering peaks, and rigelines. This is rugged, high elevation country. The main fork of the Weber River is a larger drainage typified by dense stands of lodgepole pine tapering down to pine and aspen. The forest and river's edge become one. The high peaks and ridges of the Uintas simply disappear into a wild forest.
A walk up Smith-Morehouse Creek into Erickson Basin opens up dramatically. Long 10,000 ridges dominate the horizon; the forest is open with patchy stands of aspen. Here the sky reigns. But try a hike from Smith-Morehouse into the Middle Fork of the Weber through the convoluted topography of Hells Kitchen with its false summits, small isolated basins and steep lodgepole pine slopes, and it is possible to believe that "Bigfoot" strolls in this country. From the barren pass between Smith-Morehouse and the Middle Fork stretches a vista unmatched-- green forests, open parklands, alpine peaks and acre after acre of untouched wildness.
A hike up the North Fork of the Provo River, Shingle Creek, Yellow Pine or Boulder Creek offers another view of this landscape. Here aspen and doug-fir forests, sagebrush flats, and parklands dominate an open landscape. High peaks are steady companions. The country imperceptibly changes from a measured landscape into steep, rugged and deep canyons typical of the Uintas' higher elevation pine and spruce forests.
The Lakes backcountry (we think it should be the Mt. Watson Wilderness) is not of one place. It is a diverse mountainous region. Half a dozen peaks top 11,000 feet. Over 100 lakes and numerous rivers/streams slice through the area. Cougar grace the most rugged corners of the area. Black bear are found in the richer habitats. Pine marten and goshawk find the old crumpled forests essential. If you are heading east from Yellowpine or Shingle Creek, this is the beginning of the Uintas ecosystem. If you are heading west from Marsh Peak, this is the end of the Uintas. It is part and parcel of the Uinta Mountains. If it remains undeveloped and unprotected, this 100,000 acres of roadless land adds to the integrity of the whole Uintas landscape. We face an opportunity to protect an entire mountain range!
The Drag on Wilderness and Wildness - Highway Access
The Mirror Lake Highway, a Scenic Byway, shuttles folks to and through the Uintas. If managed properly, the highway itself can augment the wildness of the High Uintas on both sides of the highway. But for years, use has been increasing, the facilities crumbling and predictions of increasing use abound. Finally, the Forest Service is responding to these issues.
First, the Forest Service is initiating a fee to maintain existing facilities along the Mirror Lake Highway. This fee will be collected at both ends of the highway and will augment existing user fees, which do not cover basic management costs of trailhead, campgrounds and picnic sites. The fee will not be used to increase capacity or improve the road itself -- it is not a toll fee.
Second, the Kamas Ranger District has initiated a Mirror Lake enhancement project whereby dispersed campsites will be closed and rehabilitated where they impact wetlands, riparian areas or are highly visible/intrusive to the road corridor's aesthetic qualities.
Third, to distribute some of the heaviest use in the Lakes backcountry/Mt. Watson area, the Kamas Ranger District has developed a heavy use area along the Spring Canyon backcountry road. A number of dispersed and isolated, but easily accessible, campsites have been designated for large group dispersed camping experiences.
With a commitment to managing the High Uintas as a single mountainous region accessed by the Mirror Lake Highway (and the Flaming Gorge Highway on the eastern flank of the range), an opportunity presents itself unmatched -- "Imagine a mountain defined by the creation of life, not the production of resources." That is the opening line of the High Uintas Preservation Council's vision statement. If we allow the Mt. Watson proposed wilderness to be defined by natural processes, if we manage the Mirror Lake Highway so that it is not an intrusion but a compliment to the surrounding wildness, we can be so wise as to protect an entire mountain ecosystem- the only possibility left in Utah!