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Mapping Utah’s road

Counties documenting dirt trails they want to keep

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BULLION CANYON, Piute County — The wooden sign just off the dusty gravel road deep inside the Fishlake National Forest reads "Bullion City: Pop. 1,851."

But it's been a long, long time since 1,851 souls called this remote canyon home, erecting their ramshackle houses amid the veins of silver and gold that once made central Utah a boom town.

It's been even longer since prospectors with teams of horses with skids cut roadways through the Tuschar Mountains looking for wealth untold.

Today, these dirt roads afford a different kind of wealth to impoverished Piute County: access for thousands and thousands of thrill-seekers and sightseers who rumble through the mountain roads on their all-terrain vehicles and spend their money in town.

"We live and die by four-wheelers," said Roger Fullmer, owner of Butch Cassidy's Hideout Motel and Cafe in nearby Circleville.

And that is why the 1,644 residents who live in this sparsely populated part of the state are watching closely efforts by the state to map and otherwise document the existence of roads like the one to Bullion City, abandoned in the mid-1930s, and roads to mining stakes and roads to cattle watering holes and roads that go just about nowhere.

Without the roads, the ATV boom here goes bust, just like the mining.

Efforts to document rural dirt roads in Piute County are part of an ongoing statewide effort to prove the access routes, located primarily on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands, existed prior to 1976 and therefore belong to the counties, not the federal government.

The state is seeking to have a federal court decide once and for all who owns the roads and therefore controls access to millions of acres of public lands and the oil, natural gas, minerals, timber, grazing and recreation opportunities on those lands.

Gov. Mike Leavitt has said his strategy is to inundate the federal government with so much information that it won't be contested.

So far, the state has documented roughly 125,000 miles of dirt roads in rural Utah, said Dixie Minson, who was hand-picked by Leavitt to assist Utah counties in their roads inventories. She said somewhere between 70 percent and 90 percent of all dirt roads in the state have been mapped using satellite technology.

"They are our heritage," she said of the roads. "They are the history of how we moved around."

Some Utah counties, including San Juan and Tooele, have been documenting their roads for years, and experts there are helping other counties finish up their inventories.

Minson oversees an effort that has teams of state and county geographers using satellites that beam location data back and forth from a perch high in the earth's atmosphere to a device on the roof of their sports utility vehicles and into a portable computer that records the presence of everything from culverts to erosion.

"It's kind of like a very expensive Etch-A-Sketch," said Dave Whittaker, who has been mapping roads for Piute County. Photographs, compass readings and tape measurements of the trails are also part of the documentation.

Last week Whittaker received some help from a crew with the Utah Automated Geographic Reference Center.

Whittaker teamed up with geographer Rick Kelson to map the old Bullion-Cottonwood Loop, a rugged mining and logging road that winds past popular Miner's Park to spacious vistas overlooking Marysvale.

It's a tedious task amid breathtaking landscape.

Kelson stopped every few miles to snap pictures, take road measurements and calculate the direction of the road.

He rattled off a series of numbers, a code known only to satellite techies. Whittaker, riding shotgun, punched the computer keys.

"Three weeks ago there was a flood," Whittaker commented. Hard to imagine, given that Bullion loop now billows dust from scores of trucks, Jeeps and ATVs that use the road.

"There are tons of ATV-ers," Whittaker said. "The tourists check out all the mining stuff."

Around Miner's Park, old mining relics are askew. The pair stopped to take a picture of a creek bed. The computer acknowledges yet more data with a "blip, blip" sound that becomes the soundtrack for the excursion.

The road to old Bullion City is now occupied by trailer campers. It then turns into Cottonwood Canyon Road, a narrow gravel path that winds its way up about 10,000 feet in elevation. Orange signs warn of heavy logging trucks that travel the trail spurs leading to locked gates onto private property.

At a fork in the road, Kelson veered left to see where it would take him. There, atop a mountain, was an old mining shed. "People now use it for a camp spot," Whittaker said.

But Kelson was more interested in the view.

Back in the vehicle, Kelson cruised past aspens, stopped to measure the 6-foot culvert at Cottonwood Creek. The road then came to an end at U.S. 89.

During the drive, they were careful not to express their opinions of the volatile roads dispute that has echoed all the way to Congress. They are, after all, the scientists who compile the data used by politicians.

How the politicians use the information is not their business.

"We're just collecting the data," said Kelson, who pocketed rocks along the way for his personal collection.

That's where Kelson and Whittaker could find themselves in the middle of a legal brush fire. In recent years, Utah environmentalists spent thousands of hours conducting their own survey of Utah's dirt roads, and while they did not have the benefit of space-age technology, they insist their own surveys are accurate and support their efforts to designate 9.1 million acres of new roadless wilderness.

"We have no problem with counties documenting the roads at all," said Heidi McIntosh, issues coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "The problem is, they are documenting routes that are not really legitimate transportation routes."

Rural counties have estimated there are more than 10,000 different dirt roads that belong to them. "That is excess, not access," McIntosh said.

County commissioners say environmentalists simply haven't got their facts straight about the mapping effort. Crews stay only to existing, established roads, and they are not claiming rights to newly carved Jeep and ATV tracks.

"The only roads we are trying to keep open have been around for a hundred years," said Piute Commissioner Paul Morgan. "We're not trying to claim ATV roads; we just want the main roads that gave people (historical) access to areas."

Part of the documentation includes taking sworn testimony from old-timers who used the roads in generations past.

Rell Frederick is one of them.

He began mining in the hills above Marysvale six decades ago, and he remembers all the roads going to mining claims here and there. He recalls when Bullion City had its own schools and stores and a saloon and sawmills.

"Mining is a roller-coaster business," Frederick said. "When the value of gold dropped," he added, Bullion City "just fell into the ground."

The roads were important then. They are important still, he added.

"Roads offered access to the potential of that mountain," Frederick said.

The potential now lies mostly in recreation.

Fullmer, a 41-year-old who used to ranch with his father and brothers, built his motel and cafe business six years ago to capitalize on all the ATV enthusiasts who now travel those roads and countless others across the Fishlake National Forest.

The motel is thriving, but most businesses in Piute County are suffering.

Marysvale is fast becoming a ghost town itself as business after business has boarded up.

Environmentalists have not targeted closing Piute County roads, but the threat is on his mind.

"For dang sure it's a concern, especially for businesses and cattlemen," he said.

Arthor Nielsen, retired roads superintendent for Piute County, said the 350 or so miles of gravel and paved roads here are the lifeblood of the region. People use them to access their livestock, to look at the scenery and enjoy public lands that should not be closed to them.

"All these roads are important to the county and the public," he said. "They have been there since the beginning of time."

E-mail: donna@desnews.com