Below is a brief history of the Cottonwood Canyons
All images USFS, unless otherwise noted
Soon after their arrival, settlers built lumber mills in canyons along the Wasatch Front.
Mill A, B, C, D, and E are names in our canyons reminding us today of the locations of a once thriving lumber industry.
Timber was used for construction within the Salt Lake Valley, for construction of mines within the canyons, and as fuel for miners and early settlers.
By the end of the 1800s, timber harvests had removed many of the largest trees
In those canyons of the central Wasatch where mining activities thrived, deforestation impacts were greatest.
Here is a photo of the denuded lands surrounding the mining town of Alta in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Looking above Alta and into the Albion Basin, we see that by 1885 few trees remained given the demand for timber to support mine shafts and as fuel to survive cold winters.
Additionally, large herds of sheep grazed across the Wasatch Mountains in the late 1800s, adding more pressure to these mountain sites and further destabilizing an impacted landscape.
By the early 1900s, over-cutting and over-grazing had resulted in such extensive forest damage that the newly established U.S. Forest Service stepped in to develop a re-forestation program.
Source: Evans, P. Alan. 1926. An ecological study in Utah. Botanical Gazette 82:253-285.
By 1910, the U.S. Forest Service had created the Wasatch nursery in Big Cottonwood Canyon in an area now known as the Spruces Campground.
Millions of conifer trees, including Douglas fir and subalpine fir, as well as grasses were germinated and allowed to grow for two years in the Wasatch Nursery.
Other trees not common to the Wasatch were also raised in this nursery, but apparently not planted elsewhere.
These included ponderosa pine, western white pine, lodgepole pine, and western larch.
Many of these remnant trees can still be seen in the Spruces Campground area today.
Preparing trees for transplanting back onto the hillsides required extensive manpower.
Even more manpower and large teams were required to re-vegetate the hillsides with the trees we enjoy across the landscape today.
Conifer trees, such as Douglas fir, were planted on the hillsides and often mixed with young aspen stands to create today’s landscape.
By the mid 1920s, the work of the Wasatch nursery had been completed and the nursery was then abandoned.
“It is a wonderfully interesting subject—this planting of humble seedlings which a hundred years from now will have grown to be mighty forests, protecting the invaluable watersheds of the country.”
– James M. Fetherolf, District Chief of Planting
(Ogden Standard Examiner, December 17, 1908)
Today only a few reminders persist of this important program a century ago. Enjoy our Wasatch forests and look for the non-native trees the next time you are in the Spruces Campground area.