BLM says 'no' again to prospecting near Donner Party's trail

Published: Sunday, June 8 2014 5:04 p.m. MDT

The Bureau of Land Management has denied a Mesa Exploration project that could eventually create a potash mine in a dried lakebed known as the Pilot Valley playa.

John Hollenhorst, Deseret News

WENDOVER — The Bureau of Land Management has rejected an effort by a mining company to resurrect a controversial project in a pristine chunk of unforgiving desert 20 miles north of Wendover.

History buffs hotly oppose the project because it's near a historic trail — the one used by the ill-fated Donner Party in 1846.

Mesa Exploration hopes to eventually create a potash mine in a dried lakebed known as the Pilot Valley playa. Part of the stark-white playa was crossed by the Donners before they met their horrible fate in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.

The BLM denied a prospecting permit to Mesa Exploration last year. The company is pursuing an appeal of that decision with the Interior Board of Land Appeals. Just three weeks ago, the company submitted a new proposal aimed at settling the appeal. The BLM has rejected that plan as well, so the appeal will continue.

The controversy surrounds a harsh, surreal landscape a few miles northwest of the Bonneville Salt Flats. What looks like water is usually a mirage. Mountains appear to float on dry ground. The horizon often seems lost in the shimmery distance.

"It's exactly what someone would have seen in 1846," said historian Will Bagley. "And there aren't many places left like that."

Bagley said a wagon train could travel about only 15 miles a day. Across the brutal salt flats area, people, mules and ox teams had to survive a 90-mile stretch without a source of drinkable water.

"When there's no water," Bagley said, "your animals' lives are threatened. And if your animals die, you die."

Bagley said it helps to get out in such remote, desolate areas to appreciate what those travelers faced — a Western landscape that must have horrified those from the East.

"This is naked geography," Bagley said. "Everything is as alien as the moon."

The historic trail is still visible in some places, though enhanced by the tires of modern vehicles. Congress gave it special protection in 1992 as part of the historic California Trail. The portion that runs through Pilot Valley is the infamous Hastings Cutoff used by only a few wagon trains.

"Maybe a thousand immigrants came through this section of trail," said T. Michael Smith, an archaeologist and past president of the Utah Chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association. "Some of those (travelers) almost every American knows, like the Donner Party."

Why would the California-bound emigrants have followed such a God-forsaken route? It's because they were persuaded by a promoter named Lansford Hastings that it would save time and distance, a promise that proved faulty.

"This is hard country," Bagley said, "and it was no shortcut."

In the midst of the desolation, there is a possibility of economic development if the mining company gets its way. Mesa Exploration wants to drill the playa to see if there's enough potash to make mining feasible. Potash is used for fertilizer.

"We think there is enough that we are interested in going out and testing it out and finding out," said J. Wallace Gwynn, consulting geologist for Mesa Exploration.

If the company finds an economically exploitable concentration of potash and wins approval for mining, it could bring 20 to 50 jobs to the Wendover area, according to Emily Carter, mayor of West Wendover, Nevada.

"Actually, anything that would bring economic diversification to the community would be a great benefit," Carter said.

Traces of the historic trail are still visible on the playa, according to BLM officials. Mesa Exploration promises to stay at least a mile away from those traces and to minimize the visual impact.

"Mesa has committed to doing everything they could to make that as unobvious as you can make it," Gwynn said.

Trail buffs, though, believe the project will inevitably disrupt the desolate view that confronted early travelers.

"We need, in the mix of life, to preserve some space for special places," Smith said. "And this is one of those."

Mayor Carter didn't dispute that premise but argued that a balance needs to be struck.

"I do agree that there should be some preservation," she said, "but there's a fine line between preserving the history and moving forward to a better future."

The historic vistas need to be protected, Bagley said.

"This landscape matters," he said, "because if we let it be destroyed, we've stolen it from our grandchildren."

BLM official Kevin Oliver said the agency carefully considered the company's new proposal but decided not to accept it or to enter into negotiations. That means the company appeal will continue, a process expected to take another year or two.

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