Saving the Semi-Natural
The Uinta Basin harbors a collision of extremes: desert and mountains. To the north is a high altitude region, home to some of the last predator populations in Utah, including mountain lion and bear. The Tavaputs Plateau forms the southern rim of the basin before plummeting into Desolation Canyon. Here, white-capped waters of the Green River and sand-infused wind sculpt masterpieces of red rock pinnacles and mazes. In wanderings among the elk and sagebrush, one inevitably stumbles upon a dinosaur footprint or a panel of ancient petroglyphs carved upon the lichen-splattered rock canvas.
“You’ll probably faint when you see the dirt work going on,” Carbon County Director of Planning Dave Lavenger warned me. Dave is about as cowboy as they come. If the “CATTLEMAN” etched across his coffee mug didn’t make it obvious, then a plaid shirt tucked into jeans topped with a big ol’ belt buckle certainly did. “My family,” he said with a slight whistle through a peppered mustache, “used to work for the rancher who owned that land during the Depression.” We were talking about Desolation Canyon. “Nobody is interested in tearin’ it up.”
I headed out from his downtown Price office to Desolation’s neighboring canyon, Nine Mile. It was a well-known controversy in these here parts: road construction right through the middle of an archeological hotspot. To appease the outraged anthropologists deciphering the Fremont and Ute rock art of the area, the Bill Barrett Corporation invested millions in dust-suppressant technology while widening and paving the road leading to gas reserves on the surrounding plateau. I did not faint, but there is no denying the inevitable destruction coupled with the extractive industry.
Wind whipped the sagebrush and juniper trees in fierce, cold bouts carrying the promise of snow. Dirt devils twirled around huge compactors, backhoe loaders, and articulated trucks. A majority of the land is private; scattered throughout are decaying log cabins and cattle munching away languidly in the bitter gales. Somewhere between the prehistoric art and crumbled rock tumbling out of the front loaders, “visible human impact” rendered Nine Mile as non-wilderness.
Carbon County, Dave explained, has a long history of resource development: hence the county’s namesake. The Bill Barrett Corporation currently works on developing the natural gas reserves found in the West Tavaputs Plateau, neighboring Desolation and Nine Mile Canyons. “I’ve been there up and down, sideways and backwards,” he said regarding the plateau. “I’ve spent a lot of time out there and, strictly reading the Wilderness Act of 1964, that is not wilderness.”
“I’m kinda a wilderness guy, too,” he continued. “I don’t have a definition for you, but I know it when I see it.”
Dave pulled out a paper map of the county illustrating roads in red. “Wilderness,” he said, “needs to be three miles from these roads so noise does not interfere with the experience.” If the map proves true, then there may be less than 13,000 acres left of the Uinta Basin that qualify as de facto wilderness. Some of these roads, Dave claimed, “are big enough to land an airplane on—no joke! Others, you can drive a brand new Cadillac to the end of the road, where an old drill hole is, and see Desolation Canyon.”
With each gas lease, a piece of the Uinta Basin ecosystem turns over to industry. After drilling, lease agreements require companies to “restore” the land. “It is hard to tell they were even there,” Dave claims. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) is not convinced, yet Dave would not know why. He told me I was the first person outside of Carbon County to actually ask him about the planning committee’s views.
SUWA seeks to preserve over a million acres of the Uinta Basin in their contentious, 25-year-old citizen’s wilderness proposal—the Red Rock Wilderness Act. “We’re willing to talk,” Dave said as we ended our conversation, “but my observations with SUWA is their slogan is ‘no compromise.’”
In November, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar identified three Wilderness Study Areas in Utah as leading candidates for de facto wilderness, one of which is Desolation Canyon. In SUWA’s view, declaring Desolation Canyon as legal wilderness is not enough. If we only manage to save one segment of the Uinta Basin, the fauna will live in disconnected islands of habitat. This is the unfortunate history of conservation in our country, where demarcations of land worthy of protection and land sacrificed to industry leave little space for life to roam.
Humans called Nine Mile Canyon home for at least 8,000 years. Given the region’s arid climate, the rock art remains well preserved—vivid even. Many Natives today consider the site sacred. It is hard to imagine how they must feel seeing road construction dissect the land embedded with ancestral messages. One might go as far to say it is comparable to paving a road right through the middle of the Mormon temple.
Although I may not have any blood relation to Utah’s indigenous people, the petroglyphs I viewed in Nine Mile Canyon stirred up awe like the winter wind releasing a musty aroma of sagebrush. Big horn sheep and elk; three deities crowned with award-winning racks, holding hands; four vessels painted in red: the images were at once familiar and dusted with mystery. Nine Mile Canyon offers an overwhelming wealth of knowledge—a portal into the ancient past. Despite the drone of trucks reverberating throughout the canyon, touting ORVs or a barrel of gas, I felt transported into a world pregnant with wonder.
Among the thousands of images I witnessed this cold November day, one will surely stay with me. Two herons reach out and touch wings, creating a bridge.
The overarching question remains: how do we reconcile the necessity of stable environments with our fossil-fuel-dependent economy? Right now we need oil and gas. But more than anything, we need ecosystems in their entirety to sustain breathable air, drinkable water, and arable soil. Perhaps a new legal definition of wilderness is in order to address the dawning era of climate change—a dawn red with the promise of storms. Or better yet, perhaps we should not let the future of the planet be held in the fickle realm of politics.
It is true that the overwhelming majority may not experience Desolation Canyon, including myself. I write this article about a landscape largely foreign, a landscape that lives in my imagination as something mysterious and grand. For me, the value in the Uinta Basin as a protected ecotone is the simple knowledge that it exists despite my reality of traffic, smog, and noisy apartment neighbors.
If you find yourself one day in central Utah, visit Nine Mile Canyon. See the realities of land turned over to an ephemeral lifestyle—a lifestyle flooding the world, precipitating inevitable collapse. What vital life source will we leave miscarried next, all because we are too afraid or overwhelmed to change?
When opportunities to explore places beyond human domains do present themselves, we immerse into the very ecosystems that sustain us. The concept of wilderness morphs from an abstraction into reality. Dangling your feet in a swirling eddy from a boulder in the Green River, you may be lucky enough to see the ancient, protruding forehead of a humpback chub surface near your toes. A pair of blue herons may even fly overhead with wings touching, bridging the towering red walls carved by human and more-than-human hands alike.
Kelsey Sather teaches undergraduate writing in Salt Lake City, where she is pursuing a Master’s in Environmental Humanities. She’s at work on a collection of short stories and essays that examine the reciprocal relationship between landscape and culture.