Emigrant Wilderness Check Dams Update

This posting has been updated with some important corrections. New content is indicated by shading, incorrect content by strikeout.

Last month Teri rode to Bear Lake with a group of interested citizens and Tuolumne County Alliance for Resources and the Environment’s (TuCARE) Stacey Dodge to visit the check dam there and learn more about the protracted and ongoing conflict over maintaining check dams in the Emigrant Wilderness. Union Democrat reporter James Damschroeder was along for the ride. Read his account here: Final push made at saving check dams.

This glorious lake exists because of the rocks in the foreground (and the rocks and mortar underneath them), placed there years before the Emigrant Wilderness Area was designated by Congress. This glorious lake predates the check dam there – by thousands of years, according to some – and the depth in the middle is between 30-40′. The check dam raised Bear Lake’s level by about 10′. The check dam was placed and Bear Lake’s level raised before the Emigrant Wilderness was designated by Congress. A series of local and regional USFS decisions ultimately led to a negotiated agreement between the USFS and proponents and opponents of the check dams that allowed for the natural disintegration of some Emigrant Wilderness check dams and maintenance of others determined to be critical habitat and important recreation lakes. [Bear Lake is a relatively short ride in from Aspen Meadows and is often visited so folks can see what the fuss is all about. Bear Lake’s was not one of the check dams slated to be maintained in the agreement.]

Unfortunately, Wilderness advocates that did not participate in the negotiated agreement and who are devoted to sequestering wilderness areas from any and all human management activities successfully sued to prohibit the USFS from maintaining any of the check dams.

When the check dam above disintegrates as was mandated by the recent federal court order and as is already happening, Bear Lake will become Bear Meadow. The Lake which provides summer-long downstream riparian habitat will be negatively impacted and this beautiful high country lake will be gone forever. continue to exist, although its level will drop. Ultimately, likely over hundreds of years, Bear Lake will eventually fill with sediment from natural geomorphological processes and become a meadow: with or without the check dam.

There is evidence on the rocks at several Emigrant check dams that disintegration is being “helped along” and accelerated with crowbars or similar prying implements.

Despite the fact that Teri hadn’t ridden in way too long and was a bit sore from the previous day’s Range Ride (see below), she wouldn’t have missed it for the world! Aspen Meadows Pack Station provided TuCare with good riding horses and not only did she learn a lot, but it was a glorious day horseback in the Wilderness. Thanks, Stacey and TuCare!

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