The Skull Creek area contains not only spectacular, very fragile geology, but also numerous remnants of the Fremont culture that have yet to be studied. The sandstone formations are breathtaking and delicate, making Skull Creek an extraordinary and unique place deserving of protection.
Leona Hemmerich, Dinosaur
Skull Creek and Willow Creek lie along the southern flanks of Blue Mountain, an uplifted and faulted plateau at the far southeast end of the massive Uinta Mountain range. Travelers on Highway 40 get a glimpse of the wild topography beyond the hogback ridge where white sandstone flatirons stand in rows, reflecting the sun. Colored slopes of green and purple Morrison Shale, and deep vermilion Triassic shale and sandstone rise beyond the flatirons. Above these lie massive pale pink outcrops of Weber Sandstone, the same rock through which the Yampa River cuts its fantastic canyon just a few miles north in Dinosaur National Monument.
There are intricately carved canyons, and mighty palisades tower above the small creeks which drain the southern slopes of Blue Mountain. The richly vegetated riparian habitats of the valleys are interspersed with small stands of Douglas fir in the deep shade of the canyon walls. Expanses of pinyon-juniper woodland range between valleys. Basins covered with sage, saltbush, greasewood, and grass fill the lower elevations.
The Skull Creek Basin, eroded like a giant bite from the dome of the plateau, forms a spectacular seven-mile long crater, ringed by cliff and hogback. Numerous slot canyons incise the sides and bottom of the basin, discernible from above only with effort and a map. The slot canyon of Box Creek twists and plummets toward the washes below cutting into red sandstone, smooth green shale and, finally, hard white sandstone. Hiking in Box Canyon, one often encounters places where the canyon walls are less than six feet apart. In other places, the walls vault upward over 600 feet.
In 1977, the Skull Creek Ecological Study Area (58,626 acres) was the subject of a BLM management plan which noted that "...the entire study area, and Skull Creek Basin in particular, contains such an astonishing array of significant resource values that special management considerations are required."
A Skull Creek Natural Environment Area was proposed to be withdrawn from the mining laws and mineral leasing programs. BLM never did this, however, once again displaying the that of administrative protections are an inadequate substitute for wilderness designation.
The proposed wilderness is rich in archaeological resources. The above management plan stated: "...the archaeological resources within the Study Area appear to be more than significant. They appear to be pivotal in understanding the entire prehistory of northwest Colorado." Over 70 prehistoric sites have been recorded on the basis of cursory surveys, including pictographs, a wickiup cluster, and 16 garnaries which range in age from 7,000 B.C. to 1850 A.D. Unfortunately, vehicle access to one site has resulted in vandalism by a bulldozer. Wilderness designation would preclude this sort of irreparable senseless destruction.
Numerous springs that arise from Blue Mountain help to support an abundance and diversity of life. Raptor populations are especially notable, since the cliffs supply many nesting sites. The BLM suggested that peregrine falcons should be introduced into Box Canyon, Red Wash, Willow Creek, and Bull Draw. Eleven golden eagle nests, including at least five active nests, are located within the area. Many other raptors, including red-tailed hawks and northern harriers, frequent the area. Both areas are considered good quality habitat for mule deer and elk. Mountain lion and bear are present as well.
The proposed wilderness offers opportunity for scientific study. The pinyon trees in the Skull Creek Basin are the oldest on the North American continent, perhaps dating to the twelfth century. The BLM said, "...their value for scientific research to determine climatological records for the Skull Creek Basin, Northwest Colorado, and the Upper Colorado river drainage is inestimable."
BLM considers the oil and gas development potential of Skull Creek and Willow Creek to be minimal. One lease overlaps with the southern portion of the unit. The geological formations here have not provided a good structural trap for fossil fuels. This low potential is born out by exploration outside of the area, which includes more than 60 nearby shallow dry holes and one 10,000 foot deep dry hole.
No mineral leases or mining claims exist in the two areas. There is no known potential for coal or oil shale. The timber contained within the areas is useful only for fence posts and firewood. The scientific value of the ancient pinyon pine forests of the area clearly outweighs any commodity uses of the forests.
Portions of four grazing allotments cover Skull Creek. There are no planned range improvements within the area. No motorized travel is presently allowed within the area.
There are several perennial springs and artesian wells in Willow Creek. Skull Creek has no reported permanent surface water. Both areas contain intermittent streams draining the flanks of the higher Blue Mountain.
Citizens generally agree with BLM's proposed wilderness boundaries, which were expanded beyond the WSAs. These boundaries an unused, deteriorating vehicle way that divided Willow Creek and Skull Creek WSAs, thereby permitting the combination of the two WSAs into a single unified area. Other expansions incorporate lower Box Canyon, which more adequately protects this remarkable feature; and adding several parcels on the north, near Moose Head Mountain, at Red Wash and in upper Miller Creek, brings the boundary to more obvious topographic features.
Citizens also propose the addition 2,200 acres of BLM and 640 acres of state land on the southwest which encompasse the lower ends of Spencer and other parallel draws, greatly enhancing the area by increasing diversity and expanding the relatively narrow western end of the unit.