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Outdoors and Travel

Forest Service came to the rescue for turn-of-the-century Utah

First Published      Last Updated Feb 14 2017 02:49 pm

When Utahns recreate in national forest lands close to population centers, the beauty of clear-flowing mountain streams, shaded public campgrounds, lush meadows and hills covered with pine trees and aspens can be taken for granted.

Things were not always this way, especially in the late 1800s and early 1900s when overgrazing, uncontrolled timber harvests and issues with mining resulted in denuded forests and some flooding in the valleys.

The result was that, in many instances, Utah state and local officials asked the newly formed U.S. Forest Service to come in and take over management of the land.

In the Wasatch Plateau that separates Emery and Sanpete County, for example, increasingly large herds of cattle and sheep that came not only from Utah but from Colorado and Nevada brought on an ecological disaster.




"The Wasatch Range from Thistle to Salina was a vast dust bed, grazed, trampled and burned to the utmost," wrote the author of an early Forest Service historical account. "The number cover was reduced, the brush thinned, the weeds and grass cropped to the roots, and such sod as existed was broken and worn."

Though no one was counting for sure, historians estimated that there were 500,000 sheep and over 15,000 cattle on the range.

Though some sheep producers argued with the conclusion, summer rainstorms brought devastating floods to the towns below the canyons. Some citizens also complained that sheep urine and excrement spoiled the water.

The flood situation became so severe that citizens requested that the Wasatch Plateau be designated as a National Forest Service Reserve and be regulated by the federal government.

Congress established the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 and the area on the Wasatch Plateau became the Manti-La Sal National Forest. By 1912, the Great Basin Experiment Station was established in the canyon east of Ephraim to do research on overgrazing and flooding.

That station exists to this day, helping study range conservation throughout the West.

According to Forest Service historians, though, there were fights over reductions of grazing allotments, so much so that it became a national issue.

Mormon apostle Ezra Taft Benson was then the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Historians wrote that an "unidentified high churchman charged the Forest Service with tyrannical practices. Lambasting Easterners, the church leader cited the days when mobs burned, raped and murdered the Latter-day Saints and declared 'we are not surrendering now.' "

But things settled down and, after range studies collected between 1962 and 1967, a 50 percent reduction in grazing allotments was made.

The situation wasn't much different along the Wasatch Front, where local officials requested that the federal government and the U.S. Forest Service manage the watersheds.

"By the 1890s, many of the range, timber and watershed resources of the Uinta and Wasatch Mountains were seriously depleted," read a chapter in the history of the Uinta National Forest. "The newly created forest service was seen as the best organization to turn this around. Its mission was to manage these public lands for the best use by the largest number of people. This goal continues to this day."

The first Forest Reserve in Utah was established on February 22, 1897, about a year after statehood was established. These lands would eventually become parts of the Uinta, Wasatch and Cache National Forests.

Another issue that surfaced along the Wasatch Front was that booming construction led to most of the timber being harvested in the eastern canyons, so much that by the 1880s, historians reported that timber was being brought in from the Sierra Nevadas and Chicago.

Some of the names of Wasatch Front side canyons are named after sawmills that operated in the area in those days, with Mill Creek Canyon or Mill D Fork as examples.

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