To a driver hurtling through Utah's West Desert along Interstate 80 at a cool 65 or better, the country seems a lonely succession of pale and brown, basin after range after basin. It is rugged country, a vast and mostly unpeopled landscape. The climate is harsh, with summer temperatures regularly topping 100 degrees, frigid, still winters, and year-round drought. Yet the loftier mountains draw enough moisture from the air to support perennial streams (even a few trout streams), alpine meadows, and forests of pine, fir, and aspen.

As Mary Austin wrote in The Land of Little Rain (1903), it is "a land one doesn't love instinctually but one that takes hold of the soul." The Utah Wilderness Coalition's proposal for Utah's Basin and Range region would maintain the wildness of 17 mountain and desert areas in western Utah.

At War with the Land

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, thousands of travelers, many caught up in the California gold rush, crossed this desert's waterless stretches in withering summer heat. The Donner Party, taking the untested Hastings Cutoff through the Cedar Mountains and across the salt flats towards California in 1846, was so delayed and weakened by its desert crossing that it was trapped in the lethal winter snows of the Sierra Nevada. During 1860 and 1861 the Pony Express mail route crossed the West Desert, the lean riders hastening from waterhole to waterhole, opening the route for later road travel.

But ever since the passage of explorer Jedediah Smith in 1827, Americans have tried to tame, manipulate, and transform the desert into something more to their liking. Failing consistently to civilize it, we call it wasteland. Nowhere has this attitude led to more destruction than in the northern portion of the West Desert where our military practices war.

None other than this long brown land lays such a hold on the affections. The rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous radiance of the spring, have the lotus charm. They trick the sense of time so that once inhabiting there you always mean to go away without quite realizing that you have not done it.

Mary Austin
The Land of Little Rain (1903)

For many years the West Desert has been a patchwork of bombing and gunnery ranges and closed airspace where fighter jets run strafing missions. The MX nuclear missile system was originally proposed for the West Desert. Nearly 100 square miles of public land beside the Cedar Mountains are set aside as a special hazardous waste incineration zone. Close by, the AMAX magnesium plant spews more than 68 million pounds of chlorine and other toxic compounds into the air each year, making this the nation's largest single source of toxic air pollutants. Hazardous materials and nuclear wastes are buried in the vicinity.

At the Tooele Army Depot 42 percent of the nation's nerve gas is stored in containers underground; unofficial reports of leaking containers and classified accidents are legion. In 1988, the largest non-war troop mobilization ever held, called Project Firex, took place in the Onaqui Mountains, leaving behind several thousand acres of burned-over countryside. The Air Force has proposed a permanent electronic battlefield and the Army a biological warfare testing center.

While these wars may be only practice, the desert knows no such distinction. Bombs, bullets, fires, poisonous gasses, deadly bacteria: the weapons of destruction are real. Adding insult to injury, these public lands are off limits to the public. None of these restricted lands is in our wilderness proposal; their existence, however, emphasizes the need to protect the unspoiled remainder. Each of these developments has effects over a large area, and the population growth associated with West Desert development brings with it off-road vehicles and their widespread damage.

Basin and Range Geology

The powerful block faulting that gave birth to these mountains is nowhere more graphically displayed than on the west face of the House Range, a long, twisted wall of laminated gray and white limestone. The range culminates at Notch Peak, which appears freshly torn from the earth, its scarp looming 2,700 feet skyward.

About 20 million years ago the opposite motion of enormous plates of the earth's crust began forming the Great Basin. Land east of California's San Andreas Fault, where the plates meet, has since been stretched, creased, and wrenched into shape like so much soft clay, forming the Sierra Nevada and the hundreds of ranges east to Utah's Wasatch Mountains. Throughout the Great Basin, massive walls of rock rise abruptly, lifted at an angle approaching 60 degrees. The landscape is young geologically, and in the profound silence of the desert one may easily imagine that these mountains are still growing, which is precisely the case.

Biological Diversity -- An Unexpected Bonanza

Two treelines, an upper and lower, define three life zones in the higher mountains of the Basin and Range. Above treeline in the Deep Creek Mountains, for instance, flowered meadows sprawl among the granitic peaks and glacial cirques. On the limestone soils of high ridges in the Wah Wah Mountains, House Range, and Deep Creek Mountains grow bristlecone pine trees, gnarled and tenacious, among the earth's oldest living things. In sheltered slopes and valleys are clusters of spruce, subalpine and Douglas fir, limber pine, and aspen.

At lower elevations, where available moisture diminishes, is a broad belt of pinyon pine and juniper woodlands, interspersed with patches of wiry mountain mahogany and sagebrush. Below this woodland are hills covered with sage, grasses, and shadscale. Saltbush and greasewood dominate the benchlands, though in places spring-watered marshlands contrast with the arid surroundings. Finally there is the enormous solitude of wide salt flats, their white alkali crusts and brackish water seeming to lead downhill only because of the earth's curvature.

Each of the mountain ranges in Utah's Basin and Range Province is an isolated ecosystem, a biological island surrounded by desert playas, where many unique species have evolved or survive as relicts after separation from a larger historic range. Several of these montane islands have been the subject of ecological studies.

Many native plants and animals, while adapted to the dry climate of the Basin and Range region, still cling tenuously to existence, unable to endure more than the lightest human touch.

The Deep Creek Mountains support two species of plants found nowhere else on earth, and 10 that are exceedingly rare; the proposed Rockwell wilderness supports a rare species of desert shrub that once covered large parts of the western United States. Due to extensive overgrazing by domestic livestock and a reduction in natural range fires for the past 100 years, there has been a widespread change in native plant communities throughout the Basin and Range country (Rogers, 1982). According to Rogers, basic research and planning are necessary to head off further loss of native vegetation. Wilderness designation can help protect these vulnerable native plant communities.

Six of the proposed wilderness areas in the West Desert encompass habitat for the endangered peregrine falcon. Eagles and many other uncommon birds also winter there. Trout Creek and Birch Creek in the Deep Creek Mountains support the rare Bonneville cutthroat trout. The desert tortoise, already federally listed as an endangered species, lives in the proposed Beaver Dam Slopes wilderness and needs greater protection of its habitat to ensure its survival.

The Utah Wilderness Coalition's proposal would protect the rugged mountain habitat of both the desert and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and, along the periphery of the mountains, important antelope habitat. Both bighorn and antelope, native to the Basin and Range country, were nearly extirpated from the region by overgrazing by livestock, poaching, predation, and habitat destruction (BLM, 1988; Durrant, 1952). Wilderness designation will help the BLM to manage for the needs of native wildlife and protect vulnerable species.

Ten Thousand Years of Human History

Several rich and well-documented habitation sites in Utah's West Desert indicate human occupation by Desert Archaic and Fremont Indian cultures in the region for at least 10,000 years (Madsen, 1986; Jennings, 1973). The most important cultural sites are caves, which were apparently created by the wave action of Lake Bonneville during the Pleistocene Epoch, and rock shelters. Danger Cave near Wendover, Hogup Cave just west of the Great Salt Lake, Scribble Shelter in the Deep Creek Mountains, and Fish Springs Caves at the north end of the Fish Springs Mountains are well-known and important sites.

Major cultural sites have been identified in the Deep Creek, Fish Springs, and Silver Island Mountains, and near Granite Peak, but all of the ranges within the Utah Wilderness Coalition's proposal have been only lightly inventoried, and it is probable that important finds await discovery. Other known archeological sites remain unpublicized to protect them from vandalism, although the artifacts being recovered in the West Desert are generally of little commercial value.

Recreation: Solitude and Challenge

World-class rock climbing and cave exploring are available in the House Range. Fossil Mountain in the King Top area affords rockhounds and scientists superb specimens of long-extinct plants and animals preserved in stone. Bird watching is especially good during spring in the Joshua Tree forest and riparian habitats of the Beaver Dam Slopes where the Upper Sonoran, Great Basin, and Colorado Plateau provinces overlap. Eighteen bird species found nowhere else in Utah are seasonal or permanent residents of the Beaver Dam Slopes (Hedges, 1985). Wild horses and antelope roam the Conger and Cedar Mountain areas, and a fortunate visitor may see these spirited animals galloping across grassy hillsides.

Several guidebooks describe hikes in the Wah Wah, House, and Deep Creek ranges, but some of the lesser known areas offer equally interesting hikes. The Granite Peak area, with its odd, Stonehenge-like natural rock slabs and rocky canyons, is well worth a visit. Hikes into the Silver Island and Newfoundland Mountains will provide solitude with spectacular views of the surrounding Basin and Range country.

Hunters will find upland game birds and deer throughout the West Desert ranges, but the Little Goose Creek, Stansbury, Deep Creek, and White Rock ranges are most promising. Special permits are available to hunt antelope, bighorn sheep, and elk in some areas, and anglers can fish for Bonneville cutthroat in the Deeps.

Threats to the Basin and Range Wilderness

During its wilderness review the BLM omitted over 250,000 acres in Utah's Basin and Range region that are included in the Utah Wilderness Coalition proposal. The BLM eliminated nine entire units considered by the Utah Wilderness Coalition: the Newfoundland Mountains, Silver Island Mountains, Big Hollow, Dugway Mountains, Little Goose Creek, Central Wah Wah Mountains, Granite Peak, Beaver Dam Wash, and Joshua Tree. In addition to whole areas, the BLM lopped off thousands of acres from wild areas it did identify as wilderness study areas. The agency eliminated much of this land for specious reasons, stating that there were no "outstanding opportunities for solitude" nor any chance for "primitive or unconfined recreation." After checking boundaries, visiting areas, and researching the issues, we strongly disagree with the agency about these areas. They are wild and deserve wilderness designation.

In a few areas of the Basin and Range Province, the damage from old mining has forced us to draw a boundary to exclude mine sites or access roads. Elsewhere, old two-rut tracks which receive little use have been included within our proposed wilderness boundaries. These tracks have evolved by use, whether by hikers, horses, or off-road vehicles, but have never been legally constructed or maintained as roads. Nature, given half a chance, will reclaim them. Unfortunately, opponents of wilderness designation encourage vehicle use on some of these tracks, sometimes with BLM acquiescence, to destroy the wilderness qualities of an area before Congress acts to protect it.

The vast majority of West Desert lands that are not under military restriction are open to grazing, mining, and off-road vehicles. Of these, only vehicle use would be precluded by wilderness designation. If every acre of land we propose for wilderness in the West Desert were designated, many hundreds of square miles of non-wilderness land in the region would still remain open to ORV use.

While the location of mining claims would be allowed for a period of time within designated wilderness, access to new mines could be limited to means that are compatible with protecting the integrity of the wilderness. Fortunately, according to recent USGS mineral reports, there are few areas in our proposal that show promise of yielding valuable mineral deposits. However, statements have been made by Utah miners that a fortune in gold and silver may be found in the proposed King Top wilderness. Mining this area would require environmentally destructive open-pit mining and cyanide heap-leaching methods.

While the mineral claims are speculative, the wilderness values of this and other areas in the West Desert are certain; the value of wilderness does not fluctuate with the price of gold and should not be sacrificed. It is most likely, however, that the gold fever will yield nothing more than tall talk and a litter of plastic mining claim markers in Utah's deserts.

Toward a Desert Ethic

The challenge of protecting wilderness is really one of restraint. The inherent natural value of the places in our wilderness proposal exceeds their mineral potential. As a society, we can afford to protect these wild lands from all forms of degradation for all time.

Included in the Utah Wilderness Coalition's wilderness proposal are 17 mountain ranges covering 754,300 acres within Utah -- about 1.4 percent of the state. We offer a vision of the desert as it is, not as a utilitarian thing to be molded in the shape of our ambitions or as a vast carpet under which to sweep our most odious wastes, but as a place of inherent value, dignity, and beauty, worthy of protection.

Mike Medberry