ARCHES-LOST SPRING CANYON WILDERNESSLooking out to the east from the Devils Garden Campground in Arches National Park, the visitor sees a vast expanse that may appear to be a continuation of the park. Unfortunately it is not. This charming landscape with names to match -- like Yellowcat Flat, Mollie Hogans, Fish Seep Draw, and Lost Spring Canyon -- is BLM land. Despite a few old uranium mining tracks and a buried gas pipeline, this 16,900-acre area remains wild. Recommended by the Park Service as a complement to the adjoining park, Lost Spring Canyon was dissected during the BLM wilderness review. Split into two units during the initial inventory, it was then dropped altogether by Interior Secretary James Watt. A 3,880-acre fragment was reinstated to wilderness study after conservationists appealed. That tiny WSA is now recommended for wilderness by the BLM, but the remaining wild lands go unrecognized and unprotected.
The CanyonBelow the Mollie Hogans, the two high, flat-topped buttes that rise northeast of Arches National Park, Salt Wash begins to cut its way into the Entrada Sandstone. Some 14 miles downstream, passing in and out of the park, flowing past the trailhead to Delicate Arch, the wash finally enters the Colorado River amid a deep canyon. Two tributaries empty into upper Salt Wash from the east: Cottonwood Wash, a small, mostly unspoiled canyon, and the larger Lost Spring Canyon, deeply eroded into sculpted slickrock.
Surrounding the rims of these canyons are extensive plains of blackbrush -- a sparse shrub that dots the desert with its evenly spaced growth, inviting the eye to the horizon. To the east, gentle grasslands rise beyond to the distant Highlands and the Dome Plateau. To the west the view rises with the rock as it climbs to the eroded spine of Devils Garden -- a unique vantage on Arches National Park.
Lost Spring Canyon is eroded almost exclusively within the Slickrock Member of the Jurassic Entrada Formation, the rock unit in which the most famous of the park's arches are formed. Smoothly weathered walls, domes, and alcoves of this fine-grained rock give the area an intimate magic. Desert varnish stripes many of the cliffs with black and metallic blue tapestries. Emerald groves of cottonwood, with squawbush, desert holly, serviceberry, and other riparian species, contrast with the bare, salmon rock of the canyon.
In comparison with the adjacent national park, few people explore this area. Yet a hike up Salt Wash from the Delicate Arch trailhead and into Lost Spring Canyon, with its many coves and tributaries, can be fully as intriguing -- and a lot less crowded -- than hikes in the park. Covert Arch is an impressive feature within the BLM's WSA. In upper Fish Seep Draw, Behemoth Cave is worth exploring.
The InventoryThe colorful shale hills of the headwaters are dotted with old mines left over from the uranium boom of the 1950s, now crumbling slowly back into the desert. A few old dirt roads are fading away, one leading to a herder's cabin. These and other vehicle ways, seismic lines, and a buried gas pipeline were the BLM's excuse to drop most of the roadless area from wilderness study. During the initial inventory, the area was divided into two units, Lost Spring Canyon and Dome Plateau, the boundary following a thin wisp of a grassy way down Winter Camp Ridge, barely a mile from Delicate Arch.
The pinyon- and juniper-covered Dome Plateau reaches over 5,800 feet in elevation. Its edge forms sheer, 1,500-foot-high Wingate Sandstone cliffs that frame the Colorado River for more than 20 miles. Part of the plateau had originally been in Arches National Monument but was dropped when it became a National Park. The BLM also chose to drop this 20,000-acre area, citing intrusions that made up less than 12 percent of its area.
The agency then began to reduce and divide the smaller Lost Spring inventory unit, splitting it down the middle and then paring away its natural boundaries along section lines. Seismic lines, ranching operations, vehicle ways and drill holes were used to dissolve more of the unit. Many of the intrusions were so old or benign that they could not be located on the ground. Years of illegal motorcycle use down the gas pipeline road and into the park led the BLM to eliminate this part of the study area.
Aiding the inventory cuts was the BLM's definition of "solitude," which relied on topographic and vegetative screening. This little-visited, remote area looks out on miles and miles of open desert from the canyon rims -- the definition of solitude. But the BLM concluded that "The configuration of the [northern] unit, even when considered in conjunction with the adjacent Arches N.P. wilderness proposal, is also not conducive to opportunities for solitude."
In a last insult, Interior Secretary James Watt dropped the 3,880 acres that in a move to excise all areas of less than 5,000 acres from wilderness study. Only a conservationist appeal reinstated the WSA.
Complement to the ParkDuring these years the Park Service expressed interest in the area as a complement to its 18,000-acre Devils Garden park wilderness proposal, located opposite Lost Spring Canyon and sharing the same Salt Wash watershed. The Park Service advised the BLM that "...portions of North Lost Spring Canyon offer outstanding opportunities for prime recreation and solitude when taken in conjunction with the park wilderness proposal..." As late as October, 1982, the Park Service stated, "...we are disappointed to see that [Lost Spring Canyon WSA]...is not recommended for wilderness....The NPS continues to believe that a holistic approach can be made in many instances to integrate WSAs into other land use plans." The BLM never officially responded.
The Utah Wilderness Coalition ProposalThe 16,900 acres we propose for wilderness are undeveloped and under-recognized as a place worth exploring. Our proposal includes the upper part of a vehicle track across a sandy grassland on Winter Camp Ridge that is little used and is not maintained; the lower part is cherrystemmed. The gas pipeline that traverses the unit, while an unfortunate intrusion, could be maintained from the existing right-of-way. The route should be closed to other vehicle use.
Lost Spring Canyon could be easily overlooked, as Secretary Watt would have preferred. Or it could be recognized and protected as a designated wilderness and as a potential addition to Arches National Park. Its remoteness, solitude, and integrity deserve no less.