by Teresa Shipley, ’05, SCA Staff
Visitors to the high lakes region of the Uintas Wilderness in northeastern Utah might be surprised to hear a chorus of ringing sledgehammers and singing crosscut saws in addition to the usual hum of wildlife.
That’s because two SCA crews have been busy this summer hacking out the middle of an 81-year old dam. The earthen structure is one of 13 high lakes dams in the area that are slated for deconstruction over the next several years.
The SCA has partnered with the Forest Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and the state of Utah, among others, to complete the first phase of the project. Work began this June in an area called Clements Lake, and is being funded by the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission.
The goal of the project has been to stabilize the dam to a “No Hazard” rating, says Forest Service civil engineer Valton Mortenson. Currently, none of the high lakes dams are considered safe from spontaneous breaching.
“What we’re trying to do is make these dams so there is no need for future maintenance or maintenance activities on them,” he said. “By doing that, they should then pose no hazard to the public or the environment in the future.”
The dams are considered hazardous because there has been no upkeep performed since 1984, when Congress designated 460,000 acres of the area as the High Uintas Wilderness. The new designation ended the use of all motorized traffic, including any heavy equipment that would have been used to make repairs and the dams have sat untouched for 23 years. Engineers fear the earth and concrete structures could rupture without warning, wiping out huge swaths of forest and any hikers who might be on the trail.
The project has posed some unique challenges. In order to comply with the Wilderness Act, the Forest Service partnered with SCA to determine the minimum amount of tools necessary to complete the project within one season. Brian Paul, High Lakes Coordinator for the Ashley National Forest, was involved in the analysis and says SCA has been crucial in keeping the project both economical and low-impact.
“It’s great that we can use minimum tools here where we can, and that’s where the SCA crew comes in,” said Paul. “They actually make it possible for us to use this light equipment in the wilderness… The SCA crew, in my opinion, has reduced the expenses significantly from what it would have cost us to do the project.”
Another challenge for workers was to finish work on the project before the snow started falling. “If the dam was only half-breached by the close of the season,” Paul said, “a high water event or above-normal snow melt could burst the structure.” In order to accomplish the task within that eight to ten week window, the Forest Service brought in some motorized equipment by helicopter.
“These are just basically farm tractors on steroids,” joked Paul. “These things can pretty much barely move a man-sized rock of 200 pounds.”
Instead, the SCA crews have removed much of the rock, rebar and concrete by hand. Unbelievable to some, the interns have proven even stronger than the machines. Current intern Mike Goodhue recalled one of his favorite moments during an assignment.
“Normally you can break apart concrete with an excavator because they’re pretty strong, got teeth and all that,” Goodhue, 23, explained. “[The Bureau of Reclamation crew] went up to it, hammered on it a couple times with the bucket and just put a couple scrapes in the top and said, ‘You guys are never gonna get that out.’”
“So then after about four days of just building fires under it and cracking the concrete, going at it with sledgehammers, and pulling out more rebar than I’ve ever seen in my life, we actually got the whole thing knocked out. It took three of us four days,” he said.
The conservation crews have also prepared a landing pad for the helicopter, built a fuel pond to contain any spills from the heavy equipment, and cleared hundreds of dead trees with cross-cut saws. A large V-shaped cut in the center of the dam will restore the lake’s natural levels, and plenty of riprap (large, angular rocks used to stabilize stream banks against water erosion) lining the impacted area will reduce erosion and encourage vegetation.
SCA has also helped preserve the structure’s archeological integrity. Because the dams were built many years ago, they qualify as archaeological sites and cannot legally be removed. By cutting a breach instead, the natural water flows are re-established at the same time the historical aspect is protected.
But outshining all of these positive pieces, interns say, is the simple joy of working outside in this stunning landscape.
“I’m about 2600 miles from home and there’s a lot of diversity out here in terms of landscape views and altitude,” said crew member Kevin Prior. “I was thinking it’d be kind of cool if I was able to work on something while living outside for a long time.”
Prior, a 21-year old native of New Hampshire is also legally deaf. While some might consider 10-hour stints of pure manual labor challenging under the best of circumstances, Prior shrugs it off, and says he has great relationships with his crew mates, who have made an extra effort to learn sign language.
“I don’t consider it a challenge because I’ve dealt with [being deaf] my whole life,” said Prior.
Perhaps the real test for the interns will be leaving the wilderness at the end of the project.
“You know, that’s the whole point of the Wilderness Act: having a place where you’re able to recreate, where you can get back to nature,” said Paul. “I think that’s kind of what’s good about this project for the crews, too. They can see what it’s like in wilderness.”
Interns Eric Carr and Rose Stoppels both say they love the harsh conditions.
“You make your eight-mile trek up this nasty rocky trail,” Carr, 25, said about his commute to work. “But you know, it’s great. I love doing it every time I come up. I love being outside.”
Twenty-year old Stoppels agreed, saying that she took the internship not only because she loves being in the rugged backcountry, but also because she wanted to do something other girls couldn’t. That’s how she got her nickname, “Rosie the Riveter.”
“I look normal but then my muscles come out and it’s like, whoa,” Stoppels said, laughing. “I guess my arms are pretty big for a girl.”
But big guns and beautiful scenery aside, having SCA crews on the project has a much more practical meaning for the agency partners.
“Without them, we couldn’t have done it,” said Paul. “I think they can feel good about that, too.”
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