THE CROSS CANYON-TIN CUP MESA WILDERNESS
- Hikes Among the Ruins
- Diverse Biota
- Hidden Archeology
- Resolving Mineral Conflicts
- The Utah Wilderness Coalition Proposal
Hikes Among the RuinsThe canyons of this unit provide uncommon opportunities for extended hikes in a setting with abundant, undisturbed cultural sites. Photography and birdwatching are frequent uses of the area, as is hunting for mule deer in the fall. The rugged terrain offers challenging hiking, climbing, and backpacking away from the signs of modern civilization; the prospect of finding the remains of an ancient civilization adds to the visitor's experience. Campsites are plentiful, both on the canyon rims and on the canyon floor. Natural overlooks provide excellent vantage points for observation and photography.
The canyons generally parallel each other, trending northeast to southwest as they cross the Colorado-Utah border. Two dominant canyons join near the southern boundary of that unit, running for 15 miles in all. The canyons begin as rocky arroyos but cut rapidly into the Dakota Sandstone and Morrison Formation to form rugged, steep canyon walls of exposed rock outcrops, boulders, and talus slopes. Access is via several two-wheel-drive roads turning west off U.S. Highway 666 near Dove Creek, Colorado. Road spurs lead to a number of jumping-off points into the canyons.
Cross Canyon runs parallel to and 3 miles east of two other major canyons, separated by only a wide road right-of-way at their closest point. The lower end of the canyon crosses the Utah-Colorado state line about 25 miles northwest of Cortez, Colorado. Cross Canyon is only 3 miles north of the Cutthroat Castle group of ruins in Hovenweep National Monument and is almost adjacent to the BLM's Lowry Ruins National Historic Landmark. Access is via any of several roads turning west off U.S. Highway 666 near Cahone, Colorado. The road to Lowry Ruins is a good route to the rim of the Ruin or Cow Canyon tributaries.
Diverse BiotaA wide variety of vegetation occurs in the area, with pinyon-juniper forest and sagebrush dominating the canyon rims and mesas, and rabbitbrush, Mormon tea, mountain mahogany, Gambel oak, serviceberry, and cliffrose on the slopes. Vegetation is thicker along the canyon floors with numerous grasses, cactus, and yucca; wildflowers such as Indian paintbrush, penstemon, yarrow, phlox, and lupine; and riparian flora including rushes, sedges, cattails, willows, tamarisk, box elder, and cottonwoods. Old cottonwood trees line Cross Canyon, fed by streams that in some areas feature inviting pools and waterfalls.
The area supports numerous species of wildlife, many of which have been displaced from the surrounding uplands by agricultural and other development activities. Larger mammals include deer, mountain lion, and black bear. The diverse topography allows for an abundance of bird species including resident golden eagles and migratory bald eagles. Peregrine falcons may occasionally visit the area. Several canyons have an abundant and diverse reptile and amphibian population, including many rare and localized species and subspecies. The long riparian area formed by Cross Canyon and Cahone Canyon is a haven for wildlife but also was source of sustenance for the ancient Anasazi.
Hidden ArcheologyThe canyons of Cross and Cahone, and their many smaller tributaries (including the aptly named Ruin Canyon) have thousands of recorded and unrecorded Anasazi cultural sites, the legacy of a culture that flourished here from about 450 A.D. to 1300 A.D. Surveys have shown high numbers of small cliff dwellings, well-hidden masonry structures, great kivas, towers, and water control devices. A wide variety of pictographs and petroglyphs are hidden among the rocks and cliffs. An intact square tower similar to those found at Hovenweep is found in the area. Cultural site densities range from 40 to 100 sites per square mile, some of the richest locations in the entire Southwest.
Yet much of this rugged, wild area is unexplored and uninventoried. The BLM, in its San Juan/San Miguel Resource Management Plan (1984), notes that the "interpretive and scientific potential of these canyons is as yet untapped. For example, although only 750 acres of Cross Canyon have been intensively inventoried, there are at least 151 recorded sites, which include 88 pueblo habitation sites and 19 rockshelters. The undiscovered potential is immense; the BLM considers these canyons to be of probable national importance based on their cultural resources and their position near the northern edge of Anasazi agriculture. In a region famed for archeology, the canyons of the proposed wilderness harbor significant archeological resources that complement the protected sites such as Hovenweep National Monument. This and other well-known sites are extremely small in area. Those sites give no feel of the country or the hardships overcome by the Anasazi in establishing their culture.
In the late 1970s, the idea of an Anasazi National Conservation Area was broached, later followed by the BLM's identification of the area as the Anasazi Culture Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). The ACEC title, while giving the impression of protection, simply approved the status quo of continuing mineral leasing and development while offering no new protection to the lands within it. Most recently, Congress has authorized the study of an Anasazi Culture National Park which might encompass lands in the vicinity. Unfortunately, few have offered the time-tested solution of simple wilderness designation.
Resolving Mineral ConflictsDespite the area's preeminent archeological resources, the BLM has leased much of it for oil and gas; about 60 percent of Cross Canyon and 20 percent of Tin Cup Mesa are covered by pre-FLPMA oil and gas leases (mostly in the northern end). The area has been crisscrossed many times by repeated geophysical exploration. The Morrison Formation and Dakota Sandstone may contain oil, gas, uranium, and coal; deep formations in the area have been drilled for carbon dioxide. There has been exploration for uranium, and there are about 440 mining claims in the unit, although the deposits are low-grade and there has been no production.
As a result of the mineral industry's interest, the BLM has recommended the entire area -- three WSAs in all -- as unsuitable for wilderness. But the agency perceives a greater conflict than in fact exists. Due to the inaccessibility of the canyon floor and the unit's relatively narrow width, slant drilling into formations underlying the area is possible from the canyon rims outside the wilderness boundaries. This practice has been used by several oil and gas operators in the area in order to avoid destructive road construction below the canyon rim and to avoid destroying archeological sites.
The BLM has proposed placing all of the WSAs in either no-leasing or no-surface-occupancy leasing categories to limit damage from oil and gas exploration and development. The BLM wilderness study documents note that "if access is allowed into remote areas, damage to a large number of cultural sites from commercial pothunting will continue; impacts will be especially significant in the...Cahone, Cross...canyons."
The existing leases could be allowed to expire without exploration; other options include negotiations with lease holders to secure no-surface-occupancy agreements, lease buy-outs, trades, and even voluntary preservation of sections of leases within the wilderness area.
The Utah Wilderness Coalition ProposalWe propose a wilderness area comprising two units, Tin Cup Mesa and Cross Canyon, with a total of 7,580 acres within Utah. The Tin Cup Mesa unit (6,580 acres within Utah) would protect the entire length of several canyons. Cross Canyon (1,000 acres within Utah) incorporates both the Cross Canyon and Cahone Canyon WSAs, joining the two by eliminating an abandoned jeep trail between them. Contiguous wild land in Colorado brings the size of both units to 34,470 acres. Together these units would greatly expand the protection afforded America's most magnificent and threatened cultural sites.