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HELL HOLE ONCE HEAVENLY

It was mid-October, mid-day, mid-week, many years back, and it was all askew. My wife Margaret and I were exploring the upper basin of the Main Fork above Hell Hole Lake and enjoying the perfect silence of the High Uintas Wilderness (HUW) and the wonderful hike up the Main Fork, most of it belonging in the wilderness but not yet. The wilderness boundary was placed in an absurd spot in 1984 because the Forest Service was interested in harvesting timber in portions of the lower Main Fork. And just under the surface one could hear big oil clamoring for access everywhere they wanted to explore. The Main Fork was on the edge and the Forest Service seemed willing to listen to big oil as well.

That was part of what was askew that day and has been askew since. But more pressing on that mid-day was the gusty, swirling and uncanny warm wind blowing and the deep blue sky. The blue sky is nothing new to the Uintas but warm swirling winds at 10,800 feet in mid-October mean only one thing. What was not askew was the bald eagle, the goshawk, the pine marten, the old sway-backed moose and black bear that had presented themselves to us over the previous two days in various hidden spots.

One can’t see outside of Hell Hole Basin when enclosed by its beauty, but I knew the skies were deep gray and would soon be over us. Soon. At 5:00 PM or so we had barely put the old Optimus 8R away (old then, I still have it and use it!), the winds howled even more, the sky went gray, then black and then dark. Lightning showed us a little mercy and smacked, it seemed, everything but us. I don’t remember any silence between thunder blasts. Maybe that was because the wind was louder than the thunder. Margaret, rolled over in her sleeping bag, pulled it over her ears, and calmly said something like, ‘There is nothing you can do about it so go to sleep…’ I couldn’t hear all of it over the wind and I hate that serenity in the middle of chaos anyway.

I explained to her that, in spite of our adult weight and that of our little dog, Uinta, already tucked into Margaret’s side, both of them chasing dreams, the tent was going to be blown away and apart. The two of them resolutely ignored me although the poor old pup was now shaking like a leaf; she always hated thunder and I could see her eyes were forced close. I was trying to figure out how, in our dome tent, I could hold the two front “corners” down with my hands and the two back “corners” with my feet. Even at a meaningful 6’3” I wasn’t big enough and worried that my back end would be just high enough that one of the never-ending lightning strikes would find me.

I don’t know how but I drifted off to sleep— and awoke just as the sky ran to early morning gray and utter silence of wildness. And damn right cold, but deeply calm. Our tent was draped in six inches of snow and it was still snowing. The cold, snow and calm displaced the blistering storm of the early night. The place is called Hell Hole, after all, and richly deserves the name.

But there is a much more hellish and insidious threat to Hell Hole. Big oil and our addiction. In the early ‘90s proposals were made to drill in and near the Main Fork. The area had been under lease for decades, but now was swamped with no help from the Forest Service. In 1994 the Forest Service authorized a well, deeper that 15,000 feet, to be drilled on the Main Fork, about two miles, as the crow flies, north of the HUW and Hell Hole Basin.

As often happens the oil company changed hands and the countdown to termination of the lease was stopped for a variety of reasons, always to benefit big oil. About a decade of no action went by, with hardly any days being counted against the life of the lease, and the company told the Forest Service it could not drill and develop the areas unless the last few acres of unleased land in the Main Fork were offered for leasing.

A misplaced joy and hope filled our hearts, thinking the Forest Service, in the 2003 forest plan could finally put this to rest simply by not offering the proposed parcels for lease.

Thud. They offered the leases and they were grabbed. A supplemental EIS was completed and today the road is built and the drill rig rips and tugs, sucks and pulls deeper and deeper. For a detailed history of the lease, the action, and the appeals, see HUPC LYNX 12/04.

Suffice it to say, in mid-September, the first of 80 semi-truck loads— I’ll write that again to let it sink in: 80 semi-truck loads— of drilling rig pipe and the like, headed up the newly built Main Fork Road. Drilling is underway now. Twenty four hours a day, lights glaring and seen from the Bear River Ranger Station and at Hell Hole Lake within the HUW and heard up and down the drainage. Drilling will end on this deep well sometime in late winter; a new well site has already been approved one mile northwest (down-stream) from this drill site. It has been authorized without any public input and review under the 2005 Energy Policy Act. It will also be the site for three additional wells if Double Eagle chooses to continue drilling.

While the Forest Service measures impacts to roadless areas and the HUW in acres and has convinced itself and tried to convince others with a deeper view that the linear road and drill sites account for only a few acres of impacts, the truth is the Main Fork has been lost to an industrial encounter. The drill rigs have to be torn down and hauled out, semi-truck after semi-truck, and new rigs moved in. Drill site after drill site. If oil is discovered and a field developed, it will be a small producing field (we know that from the geologic and drilling history), but the development is simply massive whether to maintain a tiny field or a huge one.

Furthermore, we already know that the oil, if discovered, will add nothing to our proverbial oil account—the most optimistic estimates by USGS for oil discovery on the Uintas North Slope would add maybe a day or two to our addiction, but uncountable millions of dollars for the oil companies. If oil is not discovered in producible volumes (the record so far on drilling on this portion of the North Slope), the Forest Service will require reclamation, if that is actually possible, and only passage of an eon will see wildness reclaimed. A new wilderness trailhead will be constructed at the end of the road, which will not be reclaimed but left open to give us this new trailhead and undoubtedly more access for off road vehicles and snowmobiles!

Something, indeed, is askew here!

Dick Carter


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