Aquarius Plateau, Southern Utah Mid-May
“As Ray and I trotted above a small talus slope where we’d seen a pair of marmots earlier in the day and approached a small pond, I heard a loud ‘whoosh’ from behind…”
Panting from the exertion of pushing and carrying my mountain bike through miles of heavy melting snow at 10,500 feet, I understood why the Aquarius Plateau was so named. Jim Catlin of Wild Utah Project had explained this to me, but it only really sank in when I sank into the snowmelt: southern Utah’s Aquarius Plateau is like an island of water in a desert sea. Around me, as I lurched and post-holed north along a Forest Service road closed half the year, were big snow-covered meadows sprinkled with boulders, aspen groves, spruce/fir forest, and countless pools and ponds. Some of the water bodies would evaporate away by mid-summer, but Aquarius Plateau has thousands of ephemeral pools and hundreds of perennial ponds. (Utahns call them ‘lakes,’ but I’m from the truly wet Adirondacks, where you don’t get that grander designation till you’re a mile or so across.) Being saturated to my thighs, and my toes nearly freezing in snow and ice water despite the spring sunshine, I gained a new respect for southern Utah’s wildness and diversity.
I realized, too, though that this watery plateau is suffering from decades of exploitive management. The US Forest Service, ever faced with the paradoxical if not contradictory mandate of “multiple-use\” management, leases much of the land for livestock grazing; maintains an extensive, I would say excessive, system of backcountry roads; uses these roads to facilitate timber sales; and allows off-road vehicles even beyond the ends of the roads. Of course, this is the story of our National Forests throughout the country, and we need a new, better, wilder story for our public lands, if we are to restore and protect our country’s great natural heritage. On the Aquarius Plateau, this new story could start with closure of unneeded roads, paid retirement of grazing permits on sensitive lands, designation of a big Boulder Mountain Wilderness, and creation of a landscape-scale Aquarius Plateau National Monument.
I only needed two more days on the Plateau to be convinced that this fount of southern Utah is as high a conservation priority as is the famed Redrock Canyon Country around it. Even before reaching the high country, in sagebrush flats northeast of Bryce Canyon National Park on the western flanks of the Plateau, I’d been awed by the sight of a golden eagle flying over me with a small jackrabbit in its talons. Once through the melting snow – which messy substrate other large mammals were smart enough to stay below – I started seeing elk, mule deer, and in big meadows pronghorn jn such numbers, I knew cougar have ample prey here, and wolves would, too.
When I caught up with Jim Catlin after my snow slog, writer Ray Wheeler of Earth Restoration Network was with him. Ray knows this country well, for he spent considerable time here during a long trek he took years ago across the Colorado Plateau. Jim and Ray and I camped at Posey Lake, with ducks, frogs, and beavers for our neighbors. Next day, we visited numerous ponds alive with bird- and frog-song, old-growth ponderosa pine and aspen stands (still unprotected), dramatic canyon/mountain ecotones, and some of the most spectacular alpine scenery in the Southwest.
We got into this alpine scenery by climbing Boulder Mountain, which is the highest part of the Aquarius Plateau, a broad flat-topped mountain-top rimmed by basalt cliffs and talus slopes and covered in snow half the year. Again, Utah’s diversity and complexity caught me off-guard, and we almost failed to achieve the summit, in our allotted half day (afternoon reserved for beaver surveys). We just managed to skirt the roaring brooks, scale the steep talus, and post-hole the summit forest in time to take in the stunning panoramas, before hastening down for wildlife work.
Montane Utah had one more big surprise to throw at me before we descended to the desert again. As Ray and I trotted above a small talus slope where we’d seen a pair of marmots earlier in the day and approached a small pond, I heard a loud whoosh from behind. I instinctively thought avalanche and yelled at Ray just as I turned around to see a golden eagle swooping down on a teal. The huge raptor was within feet of the small duck. Luck was with the prey today, however, and the predator wheeled away to avoid hitting trees as the duck made a life-saving landing on one of Aquarius Plateau’s countless life-giving ponds.
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