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Gravel pits near Willard Canyon spark concern over wildlife habitat, native pictographs, hiking access

By Ryan Aston - | Feb 21, 2024
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An undated photograph of the mouth of Willard Canyon where Granite Construction is conducting mining operations.
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An undated photo of what is presumed to be a Native American pictograph, taken at Willard Canyon.

WILLARD — Citizens of Willard, along with hikers and nature enthusiasts from around the region, have been engaged in passionate discourse recently with the city’s government over access to Willard Canyon, where Granite Construction is conducting aggregate mining operations.

Access to the trails at the mouth of the canyon has been closed amid the expansion of gravel pits and potential safety risks to the general public. The land is the property of the Wells family, which has leased it to Granite but, until recently, trespassing laws weren’t actively enforced.

“There’s a group that has organized that contends that there is a prescriptive easement of sorts based on historic use and the Wells family still contends that it’s their property, and they have the right to fence it off,” Willard Mayor Travis Mote told the Standard-Examiner.

While hiking access has been the primary point of contention for many, Matsu Udy of Brigham City and other locals also have expressed concern over disruptions to local animal populations, as well as the potential destruction of native pictographs.

“One of my main concerns is the bald eagles,” Udy told the Standard-Examiner. “We have one of the biggest habitats for bald eagles that I’ve ever personally seen — right off of Willard Bay.”

Department of Wildlife Resources conservation biologist Adam Brewerton confirmed that the area’s cliff band is a winter roosting area for bald eagles. Meanwhile, peregrine falcons are known to nest nearby. However, in consulting with Willard City on the potential impact of mining operations on the birds, Brewerton came to the conclusion that they were unlikely to be significantly affected.

“It’s not like it’s zero impact, it just wasn’t to the level where I felt like I needed to advise the city to take another route just due to the wildlife concerns,” Brewerton told the Standard-Examiner. 

Brewerton noted that known falcon nesting locations are likely “far enough away and high enough up on the cliff” as not to be threatened by the gravel pits. He added that expansion of the mining was unlikely to “change the dynamic” of the eagles that roost nearby.

For his part, Udy is concerned about the pits filling with potentially toxic water that could be harmful to the birds and other animals, as well as the environment. He claims that the pits already have been collecting surface runoff.

Another issue at hand is the possible presence of Native American pictographs in caves and on boulders and cliffsides around the canyon. Pictures of what are presumed to be ancient pictographs and petroglyphs at Willard Canyon can be seen online, and Udy — who has hiked the canyon since his youth — has taken photographs of them as well.

Said Mote: “We have discussed it with SHPO (the State Historic Preservation Office). We gave them the coordinates of the area in question and they had no record of any artifacts up there. And that any clearance that would have to be done per the requirements of the Mining Department.”

After consulting with the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, the Willard City Council recently allocated funds to preserve a boulder covered with Native art, according to Mote. He says that the boulder was found in a new subdivision development approximately a mile south of the canyon.

It will be moved to a local cemetery and commemorated with a bronze marker describing the imagery thereon and its significance.

The city also is negotiating with the Wells family and Granite Construction on potentially reopening access to the canyon in the future.

“We’re still working with both parties, trying to come to an amicable agreement,” Mote said. “So that’s where it kind of sits with the city. We’re still under negotiations.”

As it stands, though, the canyon’s traditional access point remains fenced off, and concerns about the long-term effects of mining persist.

“Regardless of their character — they might be great people — but the main goal of their company is to destroy wildlife, destroy landscapes, in order to maximize profits. That’s their whole point is to destroy it,” Udy said of Granite Construction.

“They know what they’re doing; it’s not like they’re not aware that they’re taking a beautiful, untouched landscape and they’re creating huge pits. They know what they’re doing. No wildlife conservation, no one’s going to tell them any different. Unless they’re legally obligated, they’re not going to stop.”

A representative from Granite Construction declined to offer comment for this story.


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