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The Lost Roads of Westwater Canyon

by Gregory Trainor — Mar 08, 2010
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An October 16, 1995 High Country News article inspires a reader to roll up his sleeves and get involved with reclamation efforts.

March 5, 2010

How one High Country News article, written fifteen years ago, inspired and informed me…

We walked the gravel and granite "bench" above the Miner's Cabin at the entrance to the Westwater Canyon Wilderness Study Area. Cut by the Colorado River, Westwater Canyon, in eastern Utah, is a deeply incised cleft cutting through the Entrada and Wingate Sandstones and deep into the black Precambrian granite. Fifteen miles long, Westwater is a favorite place for rafting and kayaking, hiking and camping.  Its wilderness values are unsurpassed.

It was the second Fall season of our reclamation efforts and, for the life of me, I couldn't find the roads we had re-seeded the previous year.  Our small group of "Friends of Westwater" looked and looked for the packed red earth that had been disturbed by the Pene brothers in the early 1990's in their search for gold within the WSA. I knew the roads were here.  I felt like a fool in front of my group of volunteers who had taken the day off to help reclaim the roads and mining claims in the area.  Roads and claims I could not find.

What brought me here in the Fall of 1999 was an article I had read in High Country News. In the October 16, 1995 issue, Elizabeth Manning described former Bureau of Land Management employee, Skip Edwards.  Elizabeth wrote how Skip had given up his job with the BLM to work on the placer mining at Westwater by Grand County, Utah gold miners, Ron and Ray Pene. The article showed pictures of Skip, describing to boaters and writers the Canyon, its rapids, bird nesting areas, beaches, and the cliff-bound Pinon-Juniper trees.

I had rafted Westwater for years and knew vaguely of the mining claims at Miner's Cabin. However, the claims issue had no face to it. No substance. Nothing to make it real.  I was too intent on getting down the river.  Westwater was about water, rapids, testing yourself, being too scared to eat your lunch or too scared not to…no one wants to have the dry heaves before running Skull Rapid.

What were Elizabeth's words that affected me?  It was the image she described: Former BLM river ranger Skip Edwards "pummeling" his listeners. Ranger Edwards "falling silent." Skip talking about the joys of working as a ranger at Westwater.  Skip Edwards resigning from the BLM.  Here was a story about love and the willingness to give up everything, including your livelihood, to protect the thing that you loved.  When I read Elizabeth’s words about how Skip had "recently bought a second-hand suit at a thrift store and traveled to Washington D.C. to lobby Utah lawmakers," I knew I had to help.  Here was a story about commitment. Westwater Canyon was a perfect metaphor to craft such a story.  Commitment is a value that you take upon yourself. You think you might know what is down below you, down river.  You hear the roar and think of the uncertainty, but you have the faith in yourself to continue on the uncharted course, regardless of the outcome. That is commitment.  But then, to buy yourself a second-hand suit, trade your sandals for dress shoes, grow blisters on your ankles, and walk the halls of Congress…that was the image of commitment that Elizabeth captured for me.

Her story also described the Pene brothers, their roots in Grand County Utah, grandchildren of Italian coal miners, and now, themselves, following their passion for the rough and tumble and the hope of finding the mother lode…details of what desert Utah meant to them.

Elizabeth placed the conflicting  ideologies on the  larger stage of the Wilderness Act, Utah's  divisive conflicts over "how much" wilderness, the Mining Law of 1872, the federals charged with managing the public's land, and the role of Congress.  Thus, Skip's trip to Washington with his second-hand suit and blistered ankles.  There was now a face to the conflict.  Vivid details that spoke to a human situation. Values, conflict, reprise. Could there be a better story?

Upon reading the story, I called High Country News and inquired of Skip's whereabouts.  Elizabeth was cautious.  Who was I?  What was my interest in the story? She would contact Skip and have him contact me, if he felt safe in doing so.  He did.

The result was years of work, bracketed by Elizabeth's just-described 1995 article titled, "To Save a Utah Canyon, A BLM Ranger Quits and Turns Activist," and another HCN  article in 1999 by Juniper Davis, titled, "Gold Mine Capsizes in Westwater Canyon."

Almost a perfect ending.  But first I had to find the lost roads of Westwater Canyon.  We did find remnants of one of the roads bulldozed by the Pene brothers.  Following that track southward, we searched until it disappeared into a thicket of rice grass,  Indian paintbrush,  Shadscale, cheatgrass, Russian thistle, and the slowly growing sprigs of Mountain mahogany and greasewood.  No way!  This desert shrubland could not have returned to its original ground cover so quickly!  Nevertheless, the re-seeding we had done the previous Fall had taken root. Most of the Pene roads and mine adits were repairing themselves nicely.  The wet Spring snow helped immensely.

It is said that "when one makes a commitment, then Providence moves too."  We would help Providence along, re-seed again, and then leave the Miner's Cabin bench alone for another year.