A transition zone between the canyons and plateaus to the east and the Mojave Desert to the west, Cottonwood Canyon offers diverse wildlife, rugged topography, and fine early-season hiking. The area is a scenic backdrop to Interstate 15, its red sandstone contrasting with the forested Pine Valley Mountains. Its easy access from the Red Cliffs Recreation Area and its proximity to St. George have made it one of the most visited wild areas in southwestern Utah.

We recommend 11,500 acres for wilderness designation. Additional national forest lands immediately to the north should also be designated. State lands bordering the area on the south should be placed under BLM wilderness management. Bordering Plateau and Desert

Numerous small canyons cut across a series of sculpted sandstone ridges, forming a rugged, exposed, intimate landscape. The intricately carved, reddish-colored Navajo Sandstone contrasts beautifully with the dark green Pine Valley Mountains in the background.

Although the area geologically is part of the Colorado Plateau, ecologically it resembles the hot, dry Mojave Desert region. Vegetation includes pockets of desert shrubs between the stony ridges, including yucca, cholla, and mesquite; lovely riparian vegetation, including the shade-giving Fremont cottonwood, grows along several intermittent streams. Higher up toward the Pine Valley Mountains are pinyon pine and juniper. The endangered purple-spined hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii var. purpureus) may occur in the area, according to the BLM.

The transition zone supports diverse wildlife. Mule deer, mountain lion, bobcat, and kit fox live here as do they farther east on the Colorado Plateau. You'll also find the Gila monster and the chuckawalla -- the fat, ponderous desert lizards so unlike the tiny scurrying ones of the canyons. Both of these species are on the State of Utah's list of sensitive species; their habitat is shrinking as desert lands become subdivisions. Gambel's quail and mourning dove, popular game birds, live here. The BLM also lists the prairie falcon and golden eagle, the endangered bald eagle and peregrine falcon, and the more common red-tailed, Cooper's, and sharp-shinned hawks. The UDWR has identified a peregrine falcon use area in both the western and eastern thirds of the area.

Desert Exploration Just Off the Freeway

The lower elevations and southern exposures in the area make for early-season hiking, riding and camping. Access is convenient from Interstate 15 via the Red Cliffs BLM recreation area located between Leeds and Harrisburg. BLM data indicate that more than 2,000 people use the WSA annually, mostly within Quail Creek canyon.

Hunters can find quail, mourning dove, and mule deer here. Hikes begin in the Red Cliffs campground and wind over slickrock domes. The broken, dissected topography provides outstanding solitude. But the area's proximity to civilization has its drawbacks: two archeological sites have been heavily vandalized, according to the BLM. (Others may exist but are not inventoried.)

Stinting on Wilderness

The area's diversity, recreational opportunities, and proximity to a growing urban area give Cottonwood Canyon high value as wilderness. The BLM, however, has arrived at a compromised wilderness recommendation. In fact, it took extensive public comments during the wilderness inventory to get the BLM to reverse an initial recommendation against wilderness recommendation. The agency proposes 9,853 acres of its 11,330-acre WSA as wilderness. Several hundred acres on the southeast side of the area are excluded due to potential conflicts with ORVs; two parcels are also excluded on the southwest side where the city of St. George has filed for water from a Navajo Sandstone aquifer.

Rather than pump ground water from within the wilderness, the BLM should explore the alternative of drilling wells just south of the area. Moreover, it is questionable whether the St. George area can continue to expand indefinitely without eventually having to adopt conservation measures appropriate to life in the desert. Such measures, if pursued now, could forestall the need to draw ever-increasing amounts of water from limited sources.

The Cottonwood Canyon area has a low potential for minerals other than uranium, according to BLM data. The area is located within a larger region believed to contain deposits of uranium, according to the BLM's consultant, but the occurrence of such resources within the proposed wilderness is purely speculative. Depressed uranium prices make development unlikely (see Minerals section).

The Utah Wilderness Coalition Proposal

We propose an 11,500-acre wilderness, taking in all of the BLM's 11,330-acre WSA. About 6,700 acres of national forest roadless lands to the north should also be designated as wilderness; about 4,200 acres of State lands, chiefly to the south of the proposed wilderness, should be consolidated with BLM lands in the wilderness.

Lissa Leege and Jan Holt