The battle over southern Utah's magnificent red rock paradise often seems as much a battle for the moral high ground as it is for the use of the land itself. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and its allies laboriously paint, with a very broad brush, any use-aligned group as rapists and pillagers of the last of America's pristine wilderness. Access advocates are often stereotyped as beer-guzzling devastators of the landscape, bent on ripping across vast and fragile landscapes on their raucous fume-spewing machines.
This past Labor Day, a rabid group of these supposed despoilers of nature gathered in Utah's San Rafael Swell for another alleged rampage across the countryside. This is a story of that weekend.
The Utah Shared Access Land List (USALL) is an informal group of outback travelers who met on the Internet. They share a common bond in their love for the historic roads and routes that penetrate deep into the still wild and primitive Utah backcountry. Formed in the spring of 1998, members of this group try to gather at least once a year for a little face time. These opportunities allow for the meeting of unfamiliar electronic faces, some informal strategy sessions, and an opportunity to draw sustenance from the rugged landscape that inspires their efforts. This latest trail hug, as they have come to be called, took place among the scenic splendor of the Swell, some of Utah's most bitterly fought-over land.
The group consists of a physician, several engineers, and a cartographer - people of all ages from pre-school to retired. Most members are in their 40s and 50s, their faces lined by the trials of earning an income and raising a family - not exactly the image of exuberant and unrepentant youth portrayed on the nightly television commercials peddling the latest shiny modes of transportation - and most definitely not the villains portrayed by SUWA, but the real users and lovers of Utah's backcountry ways and roads.
USALL this particular weekend is also a mixed group in their chosen modes of transportation. Some of the members prefer to explore on motorcycles, a few on ATVs, the rest behind the wheels of Jeeps or other SUVs. The machines travel at different speeds, so the group waits patiently at each stop to hear the history of the area, to examine the legacy left by those early settlers of the area, and to marvel at the scenery.
The first object of USALL affection for this particular weekend is a portion of the Eva Conover Road. Named for the state representative who was instrumental in its creation, the road crosses an expanse of Utah as rugged and beautiful as any found in this singularly spectacular state. Constructed in the mid-60s by the BLM for better access to the area, the road predates I-70 and stretches from Secret Mesa north to the mouth of Coal Wash. The group was supremely fortunate on this Labor Day weekend because their guides were Lee and Margaret Swasey. Lee's great-grandfather was the near-legendary Joe Swasey, one of the four Swasey brothers who were among the first to run livestock in the area in the late 1800s. More than a few of the prominent landforms of the Swell bear the names of the Swaseys or owe their monikers to the Swasey clan. It was a truly rare treat to hear the detailed and often-colorful family history associated with the various locations along the day's journey.
From a start at milepost 122.5 on I-70, the group headed southwest to Swasey's Cabin then down into rugged Eagle Canyon. Traveling Eagle Canyon back under the interstate, they turned east toward Secret Mesa and then north along the Eva Conaver Road. The road traverses the Sid's Mountain Wilderness Study Area and has been one of several controversial lightning rods for motorized routes in the Swell. How is it that an Emery County constructed road traverses a Wilderness Study Area when wilderness is supposed to consist of areas that are untrammeled by man? It's a good question and the source of considerable consternation by motorized recreationists when they view plans for proposed road closures in the Swell. The Eva Conover Road is still open for travel, a narrow corridor through the rugged, often torturous terrain between Sid's Mountain and The Blocks. The road is quite eroded in places, and the group stopped to perform maintenance on the road by winching several troublesome boulders off the roadbed and into nearby washouts.
When we reached South Coal Wash, we journeyed down the wash until we joined with North Coal Wash. A hard turn up the north branch led us toward the signed junction for the Devil's Racetrack. We took a short detour to examine the ZCMI mine, an unsuccessful attempt by the earlier members of the Swasey family to harvest some mineral wealth from the Swell. After marveling at the work in the aborted mine, we headed south up and out of the wash on the Devil's Racetrack. Used since the last century as a livestock driveway, the Devil's Racetrack leaves North Coal Wash to head south across the sandstone and ridges back toward I-70 near Dutchman Arch. When it nears the upper end of North Coal Wash, the Racetrack treks along a narrow spine of sandstone with long drops into the deep and spectacularly colorful canyons on both sides.
All along the route, Lee and Margaret stopped to show the group secret places dear to them as descendants of early settlers and as diligent explorers of the area. A signature rock bearing the names of dozens of ancestors; Joe Swasey's signature chiseled into the rock (dated 1875); a single bighorn sheep petroglyph laboriously pecked into a sandstone wall; a grouping of impressive pictographs hidden underneath an overhang - just a few of the special treats in store for the USALL travelers.
It was late evening when we returned to I-70 to spend a night camped under the towering walls around the Head of Sinbad. Campfire discussions centered on hopes, plans, and methodology to ensure that the treasures seen during the day would remain accessible to our children if we also chose motorized recreation.
The following morning, a smaller group of us headed toward the west edge of the Swell on I-70. We left the highway at Exit 105 and turned south into seemingly bleak country. For nearly 30 miles, we bounced across washouts, negotiated muddy holes, and ate clouds of thick dust to arrive at the brink of Seger's Hole. Seger's Hole, as the name implies, is a large bowl on the southwest corner of the San Rafael Swell. Framed by high cliffs of the Moroni Slopes on the west and bordered by Muddy Creek on the east, the Hole embodies what primitive motorized recreation means to the members of USALL. Dauntingly remote, bereft of regular maintenance, the roads down in Seger's Hole offer the intrepid backcountry traveler the sense of discovery and taste of adventure that is sought after. Unfortunately, the BLM is now proposing that Seger's Hole be designated as a Wilderness Study Area. This through-the-back-door method of closing access to an area is much easier than getting the area properly designated as Wilderness by Congress. Of course, if they proposed the area for regular Wilderness inclusion, they might have a rather difficult time of explaining the roads, dug ways, drill sites, and mineral claims that already exist in Seger's Hole.
Dropping down on an immense dug way carved into the sharply defined line of cliffs, the group gingerly probed forward. The dug way into Seger's Hole is not for the timid or the unskilled. The weather and natural erosional processes are constantly trying to reclaim man's feeble attempts at improvements, and the road is sliced and gashed by washouts, littered with rocks and boulders, and close enough to the edge to make someone very squeamish if he or she doesn't like heights. Down, down, down into the Hole, carefully traversing the washouts with skilled tire placement and a few rocks. Once down, we took a few deep breaths and noticed that our breathing had been quite labored during the descent.
We headed out to explore the small networks of roads in the Hole. The routes all end at various drill sites, and the southernmost is by far the longest and most interesting. It meanders for several miles, dropping slowly with the general lay of the land and ending rather abruptly when solid slickrock drops toward Muddy Creek. We dismounted, loaded up with water and cameras, and continued down toward the east. We eventually found a route that took us into the main watercourse out of Seger's Hole in a delightful little canyon with some impressive narrows. The lower end was still filled with water from the recent heavy rains, so we added it to our return list and headed back toward the Jeeps.
We spent the night in a picture-perfect campsite, perched on the edge of a canyon with the setting sun painting an unforgettable scene of golds, reds, pinks, and buffs on the opposite walls and distant rocks. We took nothing but pictures and memories and left Seger's Hole exactly as we found it: remote, beautiful, and accessed by primitive roads.
The battle over southern Utah's red rock country continues. The question of proper management techniques for public land such as the San Rafael Swell is far too complex to be understood by listening to sound bites on the evening television, digested from a brochure placed in your hand, or even grasped by reading a publication such as this. There is really only one way to understand the questions. Get out into the backcountry and see for yourself what the issues really are and then let your feelings be known. The land, and the right to access it, is ours to lose or save.