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The Wasatch Mountains: Utah’s backbone

Wasatch range defines life for many Utahns

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First in a five-part series on the Wasatch Mountains.

Had there been no mountains when Brigham Young rolled into what is now the Great Salt Lake Valley, the LDS Church leader might simply have said, "Drive on."

The valley would be just another barren spot in the Great Basin between the Colorado Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. Without the tons of rock majestically jutting thousands of feet above the valley floor, early settlers would not have had the resources to make life on the frontier viable.

No timber or stone for buildings. No silver or gold for commerce. No game for clothing and food. And most important, no water.

The mountains are not only Utah's backbone but its heart and soul. Within them is the power to sustain life — and to take it away.

"I think everyone in Salt Lake should ask himself what life would be like without the Wasatch Mountains," said Gale Dick, a retired college professor who moved to Utah 44 years ago because of the mountains. "It would be Fresno."

Dick, president of the conservation group Save Our Canyons, recalled a hike in Albion Basin with his wife and 2-year-old son shortly after arriving in the state. "We decided we were in the right place."

Without the Wasatch Mountains, though, this wouldn't be the place.

"It's an interesting question, what Salt Lake would look like without the mountains," said Jim Wood, University of Utah Bureau of Economic and Business Research lead economist. Probably "like Winnemucca."

Geologists say an earthquake fault plane formed the rugged Wasatch Range some 12 million years ago. It stretches roughly 220 miles from Mount Nebo — the range's highest peak — in Juab County to jagged Sheep Rock Point near Soda Springs, Idaho. It is generally considered part of the Rocky Mountains, though that is subject to some debate.

To the naked eye, the range appears to go on forever. But it does not. As much as it has to offer, it is a limited resource.

"This is just a little matchbox of a mountain range," Dick said.

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Still, it is the place to which people gravitate.

About 80 percent of Utah's 2.2 million residents live along the Wasatch, a Ute Indian word meaning "low place in a high mountain" or "mountain pass." Utahns are tied to the mountains economically, recreationally and spiritually.

"For most of my life, each day began watching the sun rise from behind the Wasatch Mountains," Utah author Terry Tempest Williams wrote in an essay for the 2002 Olympics titled "A City of Salt and Granite."

"They have been my point of illumination, my security, support and inspiration. Mount Olympus, Twin Peaks and Lone Peak create Salt Lake City's eastern backdrop. I always felt I could face anything because the Wasatch Mountains were my spine."

A recent Salt Lake City poll showed 25 percent of residents visit the Wasatch Front canyons more than 10 times a year, while 13 percent never venture into the mountains.

Either way, the mountains affect how we live, work and play. And we might not even notice.

"People don't often remember how interwoven everything is," said Julia Hendrian, an East Coast transplant and outdoors enthusiast who considers life in Utah as "living on vacation."

"A lot of people have grown up here with the mountains and to some extent take them for granted."

Whether or not you ever venture into the hills to hike, hunt or ski, they affect your life when you turn on the tap, bite into a peach, pop open an umbrella or watch the sun come up.

"They are essential and vital to this whole valley," Wood said.

Water is the most essential resource the mountains provide. Without it, nothing else that Utahns enjoy is possible.

The Wasatch Mountains act as a gigantic backstop against passing snow and rainstorms. Their high summits and basins form natural watersheds.

Some 40 inches to 60 inches of precipitation accumulates in the mountains each year, filling streams and underground aquifers that quench thirsty residents and farmland.

Meantime, precipitation at the Salt Lake Airport measures about 13 inches per year, not nearly enough to whet the valley's whistle.

And "there wouldn't be that much precipitation if the mountains weren't there," said Greg Williams, state Division of Water Resources senior engineer. "It would be like 3 or 4 inches of water a year."

A series of dams, diversions and canals channel the water to homes, businesses and farms. More than a dozen man-made reservoirs store water for use after the spring thaw and in years when precipitation falls short of normal.

All of it is spoken for, and there isn't more to squeeze from the mountainous sponge.

"We're basically maxed out," he said. "We're using all the water we can get out of the Wasatch Front."

Early settlers were careful to protect the water, but not as conscientious about the land. Miners and pioneers wiped out large stands of fir trees for mine timbers and cabins. Sheep and cattle munched acre upon acre of native grasses.

But over time and with improved management practices, forests in the Wasatch recovered.

"To a great extent, the Wasatch Mountains are a success story," said Jim Seitz, founder of the Ecological Coalition of Students at Utah State University.

Still, he worries about the future when he sees unfettered development and abuse of the land, whether it be from overgrazing or all-terrain vehicles run amok.

"This is something our generation is inheriting," he said. "We have got to get a handle on that if we want to know the Wasatch Mountains in 30 or 40 years as we know them now."

The Wasatch Range isn't packed with natural resources like oil, gas, minerals and precious metals. The Wasatch once was a major source for silver, on which Park City was founded, but not anymore. State officials spend more time sealing off abandoned mines than considering new mining claims. Old mines are now used to store water in the Alta/Snowbird area. Timber harvests are far and few between.

Sand and gravel operations are big business along the Wasatch and often a source of controversy. In addition to eating away hillsides, nearby residents complain about the heavy trucks and dust.

The mountains make possible thousands of jobs in the outdoor recreation, tourism and hospitality industries — which pump billions of dollars into the Utah economy. They provide picturesque as well as lucrative settings for commercial and residential development.

The Wasatch range is one of the state's major attractions.

"It was big before the Olympics," said Spence Kinard, Utah Travel Council administrator. "It's even bigger since the Olympics."

A Travel Council survey of Californians in 2000 asked what came to their minds first about the Beehive state. The typical answer, Kinard said, was the "M and M factor" — mountains and Mormons.

Recreation, tourism, development, grazing and water interests often clash, making management of the Wasatch complex. With extremists squawking at both ends of the spectrum, balance is the battle cry for those charged with managing the mountains.

Perhaps the U.S. Forest Service knows that as well as any organization.

"By law, we are a multi-use agency. By law, we have to find a balance," said Richard Williams, a Wasatch-Cache National Forest wildlife biologist. "We have to realize, and people have to realize, you cannot do everything on every square foot."

Making everyone happy isn't possible.

"In the end," Dick said, "we're going to have to figure how to share it without destroying it."

Despite human attempts to manage and utilize the Wasatch Mountains, it is the mountains themselves that have the ultimate say.

The Wasatch Fault — the ancient geological fracture running the length of the range — is just a hiccup away from mass destruction.

The fault, which the Utah Geological Survey has mapped through Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Utah counties, is the largest of its type in the world. Scarps are visible on the surface all along the Wasatch Front.

Seismologists say the unpredictable earthquake clock is ticking. Little activity along the fault has been recorded the past 40 years. But the possibility of the "big one" looms. A major earthquake could snuff out everything the mountains make possible in what Brigham Young saw as the "right" place.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com