Green Corridor in the Desert

The White River wilderness provides a wonderful opportunity for novice canoeists, including families with small children, to spend a comfortable, relaxing, and moderately challenging time in a primitive area. One needn't be an expert canoeist or rafter to negotiate the White River. It has no hazardous rapids or treacherous water. There are areas of mild to moderate turbulence and what may be called "rapids," which vary with the season but may be negotiated easily by most canoeists.

The area is an easy one-hour drive from Vernal, Utah and can be reached in four to five hours from Salt Lake City or from Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The canyon of the White River begins about 15 river miles west of the new Bonanza Bridge, which is south of Vernal at the end of the new paved highway to Bonanza. The proposed wilderness area flanks the river for about 12 river miles downstream.

The White River canyon is a perfect example of how a river brings life, beauty, and diversity to the desert landscape. Climbing the ridges to the south of the river, one can appreciate the green corridor that the river makes possible and the variety of life it brings to an arid zone. Looking north of the canyon, one sees the browns and grays of the high desert. In the distance, the entire axis of the High Uinta Mountains stands snow-clad against the sky. The observer can get a feeling for the transitions in the topography of northeastern Utah and for the special significance of a desert river.

The river canyon consists of broad, sloping terraces that end at the river and sandstone walls that have been eroded into fascinating buttes, pinnacles, and towers. Shale outcroppings and sidewalls along the river help to define its course. The river meanders broadly along a mild gradient, producing a slow current and constantly changing banks and beaches. Flow and water clarity change with the seasons, ranging from a turbid, forceful, working river in the spring to a clear, gentle, often quite shallow stream in autumn.

Large, flat, grassy parks along the meanders and bends of the river are dominated by cottonwood groves, which are ablaze with bright yellow and gold in the fall. (One lovely 80-acre grove was literally set ablaze by unknown persons in April 1989, pointing out the need for protection of the area's botanic resources.) Wild rose, rabbitbrush, and sagebrush are the common shrubs. There are the usual thickets of willow, tamarisk, and reeds at the river's edge. These flat areas are bermed on the uphill side by hummocks, terraces, and outcrops -- evidence of another time in the river's history. Excellent, protected campsites can be found in these flat or gently sloping parks. On the higher benches above the river the dominant vegetation is juniper, sagebrush, saltbush, and shadscale. In the spring, a profusion of wildflowers can be found over the rolling terrain and in the sidecanyons. The high, bare benches and ascending ridges feature cactus and desert primrose.

The entire canyon, with its benches, sidecanyons, and riverside groves, supports a variety of large and small mammals and birds. Beaver and deer are abundant. Geese nest along the river, and waterfowl are common depending on the season. Raptors, including golden eagles, are plentiful; the endangered peregrine falcon has been sighted in the area. Song- birds frequent the cottonwood groves and streamside thickets. Wild horses and, occasionally, elk have been sighted.

Boundary Killed Study

In 1979, the BLM inventoried about 27,000 acres along the White River for potential inclusion in a wilderness study area. The agency rejected this area from further study because of significant resource conflicts and "the many roads which approach the river." It is no wonder that the area, as circumscribed by BLM staffers, was rejected. The generous boundaries of the study proposal encompassed several roads, well sites, and pipelines, and brushed up against some gilsonite veins (an asphalt mineral used in paints and inks).

The Utah Wilderness Coalition Proposal

The boundary created by the BLM at the time was far too ambitious, and anyone who didn't know better would swear that the boundary lines had been drawn with an eye to introducing resource conflicts. The Uintah Mountain Club, a local recreational club based in Vernal, drew its own boundaries to exclude the significant conflicts yet maintain the integrity of the White River canyon. The Utah Wilderness Coalition adopts the Uintah Mountain Club's proposal, which includes 9,700 acres of BLM lands. The proposal calls for the agency to acquire state-owned inholdings, which would raise the total size of the proposal to about 10,600 acres and would protect three more miles of the wilderness river, including some of the most beautiful stretches of the canyon. Oil and gas production surrounds the area, but existing production would not be affected by protecting this river corridor as wilderness. Four surface-occupancy leases occur within the area on flat points above the river; one is currently proposed for development. We recommend that the BLM pursue exchanges, purchases, or other means of acquiring these leases so as to protect the river corridor. There are no significant impacts in the proposed wilderness. Old, currently unused vehicle routes would be closed to protect wildlife and backcountry recreational values. The vehicular approach to the river is via a sandy wash, and the road in Atchees Wash ends less than one mile from the river. Saddletree Draw is a dry wash until two and a half miles from the river, where a maintained road begins. In these sandy washes, all signs of vehicular travel are easily erased by the elements.

Currently, Uintah County has no designated wilderness. Growing support for designation in the county, and the absence of significant resource conflicts, make this overlooked area a high priority for wilderness designation.

Will Durant Uintah Mountain Club