THE DIRTY DEVIL WILDERNESS
- At the Edge of The Block
- Abundant Wilderness
- The Mining Invasion
- Red Carpet for Tar Sand?
- Conservation or Exploitation?
- DIRTY DEVIL-FRENCH SPRING UNIT
- FIDDLER BUTTE UNIT
The primitive beauty of the Dirty Devil country has inspired proposals for national monument, national park, and wild and scenic river designations. In 1965 some 50,000 acres surrounding the lower Dirty Devil River canyon were included in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The remainder of the canyon system lies on BLM land. Yet, despite strong public support for protecting the entire region, the BLM has failed to recognize its importance. The agency's wilderness recommendations omit two-thirds of the BLM-managed wild lands in the Dirty Devil region. Instead of protecting these lands, the BLM proposes to open them for uranium and tar sand development, creating a 100-square-mile mining and industrial zone at the heart of the canyon system.
Such development would destroy forever the primitive character of the Dirty Devil region. It is one wilderness, with a scenic, recreational, and bioregional integrity that reaches from canyon rim to canyon rim. The Utah Wilderness Coalition's 263,500-acre proposal would protect that integrity for future generations.
At the Edge of The BlockDeep within the Dirty Devil River canyons lies a mesa called "The Block." It is a formidable object, a thousand-foot-high fortress with cliff walls curving inward to form deep bays and coves and reaching outward as jetty-like arms. A dense forest of juniper and pinyon pine carpets the 5,000-acre mesa top. Deer, bighorn, and an occasional human visitor climb the single foot trail that leads up through the cliffs to the summit.
|The outlaws would rustle their cattle into [Robbers] Roost, which was a five-mile circular flat that had lookout points on all sides . . . . Isolated from settlements by miles of desert and box canyons, it was almost inaccessible except to the few that knew the route . . . . It was a fortressed triangle of deep canyons, rivers and mesas and perfectly suited the needs of the outlaws.
One by one, the landmarks burn with light. To the north lies The Big Ridge, a thousand-foot-high, fifteen-mile-long land bridge that forms the northern wall of Fiddler Cove. Massive buttes and pyramids rise from the floor of the Cove and, at its center, spiked by a lightning-strobe, stands Fiddler Butte, a sphinx-like monolith 900 feet high. Thunder rolls across the Cove, roaring like surf against its walls. To the west, the Henry Mountains seem to rise and fall against a backdrop of intermittent green light. On the northern horizon, a pink flash silhouettes the San Rafael Reef, Factory Butte, and the black hulk of Thousand Lake Mountain.
Somewhere below, lost in shadow, the Dirty Devil River trickles quietly between 500-foot-high canyon walls on its 90-mile journey from Hanksville to the Colorado River.
Abundant WildernessFor centuries the Dirty Devil canyon system has been a barrier to civilization, a 300,000-acre wilderness suspended between sheer walls. It remains so today. Here one can find, in abundant supply, all that one could hope for in wilderness. The landscape is an infinite series of novel and beautiful shapes. There are colorful cliffs, winding slot canyons, rincons, alcoves, pools, waterfalls, buttes, towers, domes, spires, and arches. During the spring snowmelt boaters ride the length of the river in kayaks and canoes. Hikers and climbers find still more adventure; a recent guidebook (Kelsey, 1987a) features 200 miles of backcountry hiking routes within the Dirty Devil canyon system.
The entire Dirty Devil area provides important habitat for wildlife. Herds of antelope roam the plateau country along both canyon rims. Remote sidecanyons harbor rare populations of beaver, desert bighorn sheep, and at least nine species of plants and animals which the BLM has identified as "sensitive." Prehistoric artifacts are abundant here, as they are throughout the Colorado Plateau. Recent studies by the National Park Service and the BLM (1984) suggest an average density of 24 archeological sites per square mile, or up to 11,000 rock shelters, campsites, lithic scatters, stone tool quarries, and petroglyph sites throughout the Dirty Devil region.
Since the 1930s, there has been a series of proposals for preserving the primitive character of the Dirty Devil canyons. In 1936, Wilderness Society founder Bob Marshall identified the Dirty Devil canyons as an integral part of the 8.9-million-acre Colorado River canyons roadless area -- the largest remaining block of wilderness in the lower forty-eight states. In the same year, the U.S. Department of the Interior launched a proposal to create a 4.5-million-acre Escalante National Monument in Utah. The monument's western boundary would have included nearly 200,000 acres surrounding the lower Dirty Devil River canyon. A 1961 proposal by Interior Secretary Stewart Udall would have included some 37,000 acres of the Dirty Devil region within Canyonlands National Park. In 1970, the BLM identified a candidate Dirty Devil primitive area of over 300,000 acres, and by 1979 the National Park Service had identified the entire length of the Dirty Devil River as a potential addition to the National Wild and Scenic River System.
The Mining Invasion
|Instead of blocking new development on lands under study for wilderness designation, the BLM had become an agent for development. Even |
Virtually all of the new roadwork was illegal, for Cotter Corporation had failed to apply for road right-of-way and drilling permits, as required by law. Where such developments might permanently impair the wilderness character of lands under review, they were strictly forbidden by the BLM's wilderness inventory regulations. Yet only after conservationists discovered the new roads did the BLM finally intervene. A 1979 BLM lawsuit forced the company to fully reclaim any new roadwork within the Dirty Devil WSA. Faced with the costs of repairing its damage -- and a sharply declining market for uranium -- Cotter abruptly canceled its exploration program.
Meanwhile the BLM was conducting its wilderness inventory. In response to the pressure from Cotter, the agency rushed to eliminate huge blocks of land from the inventory. During a special "accelerated inventory," the BLM reduced the original roadless area of more than 400,000 acres to three separate fragments: a 61,000-acre Dirty Devil WSA, a 25,000-acre French Springs-Happy Canyon WSA, and a 27,000-acre Fiddler Butte WSA. Between the three WSAs, and precisely at the center of the Dirty Devil canyon system, the BLM dropped from wilderness study nearly 100,000 acres, including a 16-mile-long segment of the Dirty Devil River itself. The lands omitted contained many of the region's most striking landmarks, including Sam's Mesa, lower Happy Canyon, The Pinnacle, The Big Ridge, The Block, Fiddler Cove, and Fiddler Butte.
Thus began an eight-year-long war of wills between Utah conservationists and the BLM. Instead of blocking new development on lands under study for wilderness designation, the BLM had become an agent for development. Even inside its three wilderness inventory units, the BLM continued to authorize the construction of new roads, new drillpads, mine assessment work, and reservoir construction. Yet the BLM's mandate to preserve wilderness was clear and direct. Congress had specifically instructed the agency to protect all of its wild lands from new development while they remained under wilderness review. Utah conservationists fought back with protests and formal appeals. In 1983 and 1985, they won important victories before the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA). The BLM had demonstrated no good reason, the IBLA ruled, for omitting Fiddler Butte from the Fiddler Butte WSA. The two successful appeals ultimately forced the BLM to add 47,000 acres to the WSA.
Red Carpet for Tar Sand?Uranium exploration, wildcat oil wells, new road and reservoir construction -- all were serious threats to the primitive character of the Dirty Devil canyons. But by 1982, there was a new and far more dangerous threat. A coalition of 15 petroleum companies filed a proposal to develop a 66,000-acre tar sand mining complex spanning French Springs Canyon, Happy Canyon, The Big Ridge, and Fiddler Cove. The proposed development would have transformed the Dirty Devil region into a huge mining and industrial complex, causing environmental damage so thoroughly catastrophic that the BLM's 400-page environmental impact statement required more than 50 pages merely to describe it.
Over the 160-year life of the project, a total of 35,000 injection and production wells would be bored throughout 54,000 acres of land. Subterranean explosions and fires would cause extensive subsurface fracturing over 39,000 acres, destroying natural aquifers and causing subsidence rockfalls and steam blowouts on cliff faces. More than 30,000 acres of soil would be disturbed, and 14,000 acres of land would be stripped completely of vegetation. Some 2,000 archeological sites would be disturbed. There would be a dam and reservoir on the Dirty Devil River and a water pipeline running the length of Happy Canyon. Hundreds of miles of roads would be built throughout Happy and French Springs canyons, The Big Ridge, and Fiddler Cove. There would be a bridge over the Dirty Devil River, and the Flint Trail -- a narrow, winding, adventurous jeep trail that climbs to the top of the Orange Cliffs -- would be crowned, ditched, and paved to accommodate some 600 vehicles per day.
On-site facilities would include five steam generation plants, an electrical power plant, coking, sulphur recovery, and sewage plants, oil storage tanks, a reservoir, and a solid waste dump. Noise levels would be high enough to cause hearing impairment within 600 feet of the extraction zone. The refinery's stack would dominate the western horizon of Canyonlands National Park, sending up a smoke plume by day and a halo of artificial lighting by night. Its emissions would regularly violate federal air quality standards within Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Traffic, habitat disturbance, and noise would drive bighorn sheep, peregrine falcon, and other sensitive species of wildlife out of the region.
Even before the BLM had completed its environmental impact statement, a sharp downturn in worldwide oil prices put a sudden end to tar sand development in Utah.
In comparison to world oil reserves and national consumption, the entire oil reserves of the Dirty Devil region, even under the most optimistic estimates, are but a drop in the bucket. And oil from tar sand is much too costly to be economically viable in the foreseeable future. But if the world's resources of cheaper oil were depleted before alternative energy sources became viable, there could once again be a push to exploit the Dirty Devil tar sand deposits.
Conservation or Exploitation?The energy companies -- and the BLM -- are betting on another energy crisis. They are betting against energy conservation, and they are betting against cleaner and more economical sources of energy. The BLM seems committed to tar sand development in the Dirty Devil region no matter what its environmental effect. That commitment is abundantly clear in the agency's wilderness recommendations. The BLM would omit 40,000 acres from the Fiddler Butte WSA so as "to reduce tar sand conflicts," as the recommendation flatly states. Most of the 25,000-acre French Springs WSA would be opened to development. "About 20,460 acres of the WSA are involved in lease conversion application for tar sand development," the BLM explained. "Development work, extraction, and patenting would be allowed...."
Such development would destroy the wilderness character of the entire region. The Dirty Devil canyon system is one wilderness, with an esthetic and physical integrity that would be lost forever to a 60,000-acre tar sand mining complex. Gradually, after decades of erosion, the scattered mining impacts of the 1950s and the 1970s are being reclaimed and revegetated. Mudslides and gullies are slowly obliterating the Cotter Corporation's illegal road work on Sam's Mesa, in Happy Canyon, and along the Dirty Devil River gorge between Happy Canyon and Twin Corral Canyon. The Dirty Devil canyons remain triumphantly wild.
While the BLM has failed to recognize the importance of protecting the entire canyon system, the Utah Wilderness Coalition has made region-wide integrity its primary goal. Our 263,500-acre wilderness proposal would protect the entire Dirty Devil wilderness, healthy and intact, for future generations to explore.