Into the National Forest: with great beauty comes great responsibility

It’s a high summer evening in July, and I’m sitting in a luscious grove at Aspen Acres, a development of cabins on the north-western edge of the Uintah-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Birdsong drops down from the branches. An earthy scent wafts by on a breeze, and the aspens’ coin-shaped leaves rasp softly, as though the trees were chattering with themselves. I close my eyes and take a deep breath of mountain air. For a moment, I remember what it means to relax.

But the calm is summarily stomped out. A caravan of ATVs roar past on a gravel road. It’s the first of many such caravans which seem hell bent on hounding the natural soundscape into exile. And I think, Of course, a peaceful getaway foiled by the infernal sound of four-stroke engines. Although it’s funny how attitudes change, because I’m staying at a cabin that happens to include a pair of ATVs also. It isn’t an hour later that I’m ripping down a backcountry road on one of my own, the invigorating rush of cool mountain air streaming over my skin. That’s when I catch myself saying, All right, maybe a little noise is okay. 

It’s the first of many contradictions that meet me on this weekend retreat. I’ll be left with tough questions about the proper balance of recreation and restraint, and a heightened sense of the special role we as Utahans play in the prudent stewardship of our state’s abundant natural beauty. Only one hour’s drive from Salt Lake City—a straight shot up I-80 into the heart of Summit County through Oakley, a town known for its rodeos and the amazingly quaint, award winning Road Island Diner—Aspen Grove near Smith and Morehouse reservoir is a mere stones throw from the state’s capital, a testament to the Wasatch Front’s constant ranking on top twenty lists for best places to live for outdoor enthusiasts.

Yet this proximity comes with a quandary. The outdoor economy is drawing talent and driving growth, but places like the Wasatch Mountains are attractive largely by virtue of their untrodden conditions. How long can these pristine surroundings last if the crowds keep pouring in?

It’s a question I ask the next day as I pull into the lot at the Smith and Morehouse Reservoir, a long, narrow body of water nestled between scaling valley walls near the peak of Weber Canyon. The boulder strewn “beach” is teeming with visitors, who clearly missed the warning about the sun at high altitudes, which is deceptively potent. Their bodies glow like fresh picked strawberries. It’s almost painful to look at. The snow-melt water is so numbingly cold, however, I’m sure they won’t feel it till later. 

They set out on paddle boards and canoes, fishing poles wagging off sterns, hoping to hook one of the lakes tiger trout for dinner. I push out in an inflatable kayak and paddle until the shore’s din recedes to a white noise. I pull the paddles in and drift. Out on the lake, the canyon’s grandeur is inescapable. The mountain’s stark vertical wedges rise up with such steepness you wonder how any foliage at all can cling to its face. But cling, indeed, it does, with tens of thousands of the most deeply green conifers I’ve seen, thoroughly quenched after a record-setting spring.

And yet, despite its imposing magnificence, I read in these mountains a sense of fragility. History has shown how rapidly extractive industries and over-tourism can decimate gorgeous ecologies. I’m suddenly struck by a feeling that lands between protective and greedy, as though I’m not sure I can trust others with this beauty. But I dock back on the beach and realize that the sun-burnt jaws have dropped as far as mine—awe all around. It reaffirms my belief in the need for strong public funding for forests and other public lands at a time when the Trump administration is proposing a budget that would diminish funding for critical functions of the Department of the Interior, along with reducing spending to state-level and private forestry services that bolster the health and resiliency of mountain forests like the Wasatch.

On my last day, I ride the ATV to Beaver Springs Ranch on the Weber river. A red-painted barn with a pitched roof stands in the shade of towering cottonwoods at the far end of a field where the wind brushes patterns in the grass. Enormous crows hop along the fence line where golden-coated horses lazily graze. I notice something incongruous to all this bucolic charm, though, as one after another luxury German sedan pulls away from the ranch, kicking up clouds of dust on their way back to the city. I park and take a footpath along the river, where yellow paintbrush and purple lupine wildflowers freckle the clearings in color. Then I come around a bend and happen upon a doe mule deer leading two fawns across the river at a shallow crossing. The fawns are positively puny. That is, with the exception of their ears, which spread off their heads like two Direct-TV dishes. We stare at one another for a second, and then the mother leads a retreat. This moment holds something incongruous, too, a feeling that’s somehow both sad and happy. The fawns, in their stumbling steps and spotted hides, are impossibly adorable. But I also feel like their retreat is the symbol of a larger encroachment. Animal habitat has shrunken across the West, leaving some of its most iconic creatures, like moose, cougars and bears, at risk.

This trip to the Uintah-Wasatch-Cache National Forest impresses the need for smart policies that protect our forests, along with a sense of balance and responsible recreation. As for the noise of a four stroke engine? I suppose a bit is okay. But I also know that had I announced my approach around the bend on the roar of a four-wheeler, those fawns would have already been long gone.  

Zakary Sonntag is a Better Utah policy intern.

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