|Establishment||History||The Land||Osceola Ditch Story||Size|
From the sagebrush at its alluvial base to the 13,063-foot summit of Wheeler Peak, Great Basin National Park includes streams, lakes, alpine plants, abundant wildlife, a variety of forest types including groves of ancient bristlecone pines, and numerous limestone caverns, including beautiful Lehman Caves.
Great Basin National Park was established on October 27, 1986. Prior to that time, the area existed as Lehman Caves National Monument, (established in 1922) and Humboldt National Forest's Wheeler Peak Scenic Area. The park was established to set aside exceptional examples of the Great Basin region. Great Basin is a hydrologic region where all precipitation, whether in the form of rain or snowmelt, that occurs in the region stays in the basin where it either evaporates or filters down into underground aquifers� never reaching the ocean. The region covers over 200,000 squares miles, extending from the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the West to the Wasatch Range in the east and from Idaho in the north to southern Nevada.
Great Basin National Park is one of the newest national parks in the U.S. Great Basin was set aside on 27 Oct 1986 by President Ronald Regan.
Lehman Caves National Monument was established on 24 Jan 1922. It was transferred from the Forest Service to the Park Service on 10 Aug 1933 and incorporated into Great Basin National Park on 27 Oct 1986.
The Great Basin National Park includes much of the South Snake Range, a superb example of a desert mountain island. From the sagebrush at its alluvial base to the 13,063 foot summit of Wheeler Peak, the park includes streams, lakes, alpine plants, abundant wildlife, a variety of forest types including groves of ancient bristle-cone pines and numerous limestone caverns, including beautiful Lehman Caves.
Great Basin National Park consists of 77,180 acres of federal land.
Non-Federal Land - 0.00
Gross Area Acres - 77,180.00
The name, the Great Basin, comes from a peculiarity of drainage: over most of the area, streams and rivers find no outlet to the sea. Instead water collects in shallow salt lakes, marshes and mud flats, where it evaporates in the desert air. There is not just one basin here, but many, all separated by mountain ranges running roughly parallel, north and south. The landscape plays and replays a single magnificent theme of alternating basin and range - broad basins hung between craggy ranges - from the Wasatch Mountains of Utah to the Sierra Nevada of California in seemingly endless geographic rhythm. At first glance (or even after many miles of driving) you might think of it as monotonous landscape - nothing out there but sagebrush, a vast sea of pale green shrubs. Appearances are deceptive. As in the ocean, there is much life not immediately apparent. And above the valleys, rising thousands of feet from the sagebrush sea, mountain ranges form a high-elevation archipelago, islands of cooler air and more abundant water. Here we find a rich variety of plants and animals that could not survive in the lower desert.
Prehistoric peoples, known from archeological evidence, lived in this area along the shores of ancient Lake Bonneville. Later American Indian residents lived in small villages near the present towns of Baker and Garrison from about 1100 to 1300. Known as members of the Fremont Culture, they irrigated corn, beans, and squash in the valley and hunted in the mountains. Numerous rock art sites in the park remind us of their presence.
Shoshone and Paiute peoples lived in the area from about 1300 until recently in small kin groups near springs and other water sources. They gathered and hunted a variety of wild foods, but their mainstay, especially in winter, was the pinyon nut. Descendants of these peoples still live in the area and share this harvest with other residents; pinyon jays, rock squirrels, wood rats, and other small animals.
In 1872, prospectors James Matteson and Frank Heck discovered gold three miles west of what is now Great Basin National Park. Over the next six years some 100 claims were staked in the quartz veins of the new Osceola mining district. The production of lodes, however, was not enough to operate the mines at a profit.
In 1877 placer gold was discovered by John Versan. The placers were located between Wet Gulch and Dry Gulch. Three hundred claims were placed and mining began to flourish. By 1882 the town of Osceola grew to a population of more than 1500 people. The community included several stores, a butcher and blacksmith shop, a Chinese restaurant and two stages running regularly to Ward. Uncovered here was almost two million dollars worth of gold, including a nugget weighing 24 pounds which would be worth almost a quarter million dollars at today's prices. Though unimaginable wealth lay buried in the gravel of Dry Gulch, too little water made large scale operations impossible.
In 1884-85 the Osceola Gravel Mining Company constructed a 16 mile ditch, known as the West Ditch, to carry the water from six creeks on the west side of the Snake Range to their placer operations. It did not meet the company's needs, however, and on September 12, 1885 the White Pine News reported that the hydraulic mines were "running very slow at present on account of the scarcity of water, only averaging about 2 hours a day."
The Osceola Gravel Mining Company began surveys in 1885 for a second waterway on the east side to be called the East Ditch. In September 1889 construction began on this 18 mile ditch to collect water from Lehman Creek and its tributaries on the east side of the range. Water rights were purchased from Absalom Lehman, who had recently discovered Lehman Cave. Several hundred men using hand tools, wagons, horses, and mules labored ten months to complete the ditch. Local sawmills produced lumber for 2.2 miles of wooden flumes, and the support beams for the 633 foot long tunnel which was blasted through a ridge near Strawberry Creek.
The Osceola Ditch was completed on July 4, 1890 at a cost of $108,223, an expensive gamble in a business where profitable yields were not guaranteed. In 1891 both ditches were being used in operations, and by June 17 the mine was running twenty-four hours a day. The early success of the ditches did not last long, and gold production did not meet expectations. The gross yield of the Osceola Mining Company in 1890 was only $16,191, and in 1891 only $20,223. Beginning in 1892 placer mining was further hampered by water shortages caused by mild, dry winters. Water theft, leaky wood flumes, and the legal battles over water rights reduced the water supply even more. Over the next few years mining activity fluctuated and finally by 1905 mining activity at Osceola came to a virtual standstill.
Mining continued sporadically at Osceola over the next several decades. Production was renewed from 1936 to 1942, and again following World War II. Even today numerous claims remain at the site, many of them re-working the tailings left by prior mining efforts. All told, Osceola has produced $3 � million worth of gold.
Ranching has been a cornerstone of life in the Great Basin for well over 100 years. Dependence on the land and its resources has created a financial stability and a rich heritage for ranchers and their families. Through a deep understanding and honest relationship with the terrain, these ranchers have been able to prosper on what others might call a barren wasteland.
But this unique and personal connection has long been a part of life in the Great Basin. A thousand years ago the Fremont farmed the present-day Snake Valley. These Native Americans used the land for about a hundred years hunting and growing crops and then moved on. Why the Fremont left this area remains a mystery.
Early pioneers started arriving in the Snake Valley in the latter part of the 1800s. Coming from diverse backgrounds, some were teamsters passing through hauling ammunition and silver; others included Mormons following an exodus to the west, surveyors, or simply homesteaders looking to build a future for themselves. Miners were attracted by tungsten and gold deposits, but cattle ranching would soon establish itself as the mainstay "industry" early on in the Snake Valley. One of these early pioneers, Absalom Lehman, credited for the discovery of Lehman Cave, was a miner who moved to the area hopeful of making a better living through ranching.
The Snake Range, with its creeks and high meadows, provided enough water and forage to support a few ranching operations, and allowed some ranchers to succeed in building new lives. These ranching pioneers started a legacy that would last for generations to follow.
Sons took over operations from their fathers. Land and public land grazing permits were passed down through families. Even with the creation of Great Basin National Park in 1986, grazing within the park boundaries was mandated to continue in perpetuity. The latest generation of three ranching families, however, would soon face a change. Increasing complaints from visitors not used to sharing a national park with cattle sparked conversations between then Superintendent Al Hendricks and local ranchers. Convinced that compensation for the donation of grazing permits might be an equitable and profitable gain to the ranchers, this group pursued discussions with Senator Harry Reid of Nevada on one of his visits to the park.
A solution did not come quickly or easily. While mandated in the original legislation, continued cattle grazing in Great Basin National Park conflicted with the National Park Service Mission. In December 1999, after the better part of nine years of talking, compromising and fundraising, the Conservation Fund, aided by Senator Reid, had raised enough money from various organizations, foundations, and individuals to compensate the ranchers for donating their permits. Once these permits were donated, they could then be terminated. However, this action did not end all grazing in the park. Sheep continue to graze on the western slopes of the Snake Range.
The final outcome involving the cattle ranchers and the buyout of their grazing permits has been described by a local rancher as a win-win situation for both the ranchers and the National Park Service. Great Basin National Park will be monitoring the areas in which cattle are no longer grazing to try and understand the changes in the vegetation and the watershed that will ensue. The park will also now be able to continue its efforts to remove non-native plant species and reintroduce fire in the park's ecology. Visitors are also free to enjoy the park without having to share hiking trails and campgrounds with cattle.
The ranchers were compensated for donating their permits and pursue cattle grazing in other allotments nearby and on private land. Holding onto their rich heritage, they proceed with their ranching operations and continue to assist in the conservation of open space that so many people here in the Great Basin treasure.
After all, open space is the essence of the Great Basin, as is its natural beauty and its rich cultural heritage. Bristlecone pines, luscious spring-fed meadows, sagebrush, the strong pioneering spirit, cattle ranching - all these and more are the elements that, together, make the Great Basin so unique. Just as they tie together to become the landscape, they tie the people to the land. These ties carry strong emotions that outsiders may never fully comprehend. The families who have built their lives here have connected to the land upon which their ancestors built a legacy, and it is the source from where their heritage continues to grow.
Lehman Caves is a beautiful limestone cave with intriguing, unusual formations. Lehman Caves is one of the best places to see rare shield formations. Over 300 shields are known in Lehman Caves, more than any other cave. All of the cave is profusely decorated; stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, flowstone, popcorn, and other formations cover almost every surface of the cave.
Lehman Caves is a window into the past. Information about past surface climates are preserved in the layers of cave formations, while much can be learned about natural history from the "treasures" in old pack rat middens. Thus the cave has great potential for researchers to study both past climate change and the effects of climate change on plant and animal communities
On the Edge of the Desert
The Snake Range provides a good example of biogeography, the relationship between living things and the landscape. As elevation increases, the climate changes, creating habitats for different plants and animals. During the most recent Ice Age, glaciers sprawled across the high peaks. The air was cooler, allowing forests of bristlecone and limber pine to grow on the valley bottom, along the shores of long sinuous lakes. The largest body of water was Lake Bonneville, of which the Great Salt Lake is today a shrunken remnant. About 15,000 years ago, its waves lapped a beach just 10 miles from the current park boundary.
That changed around 10,000 years ago, when the climate turned warmer. Glacier melted, lakes dried up and the desert plants we see today invaded the desiccated valleys. The Snake Range became an island surrounded by desert, a refuge for temperate-climate dwellers. For many organisms with no means of transport, the desert basins present impassable barriers. These species are isolated from others of their kind, left alone to develop unique adaptations as surely as though they were on islands in an ocean.
A Land of Lakes and Forests
Close beneath the summit of Wheeler Peak, a bit of the Ice Age exists in the form of a small glacier, the only one of its kind in the Great Basin. A mere token, it calls to mind the powerful glaciers that capped the Snake Range only a few thousand years ago. Evidence of glacial activity is easy to find. Piles of glacial debris - boulders, sand, gravel - form mounds and ridges. Sparkling Teresa and Stella Lakes occupy hollows gouged by ice.
These were alpine glaciers, not the huge continental ice sheets that enveloped the northern part of the continent. Here, ice never reached the valley floor. Instead it melted at an elevation of about 8,000 feet. You can see this in the shape of the Baker Creek drainage. Above the melting point, glaciers plucked and carried bedrock, widening and smoothing the mountain slopes. Below the melting point, cascading streams cut sharp-sided canyons.
Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive provides good views of the range. Beginning near the park entrance, it leaves Lehman Creek to climb across a dry shoulder of the mountain, ending near treeline. In 12 miles, it gains 3,400 feet in elevation, passing through a variety of habitats; from the pinyon- juniper woodlands, along a creekbed lined with aspen trees, through a zone of shrubby mountain mahogany and manzanita, into deep forests of Englemann spruce and Douglas fir, to the flower- spangled meadows and subalpine forest of limber pine, spruce, and aspen at the Wheeler Peak campground.
Treeline and Above
In the South Snake Range, 13 peaks rise above 11,000 feet. On those lofty exposed summits, winter is never far off. Snow can fall during any month, even in July. At night, freezing temperatures are common. To survive, plants must cope with a short growing season, poor soil, thin air, and intense solar radiation. High winds also buffet the peaks, punishing anything that rises above the horizon- including transient visitors such as hikers. Whatever lives here must keep a low profile. Lichens cling to rocks like paint. Dwarfed plants grow tight to the ground, firmly anchored in crevices. Shrubs appear pruned by a bonsai gardener. Trees live in cavities or hollows.
The trees found highest in the Snake Range, limber and bristlecone pines, appear between 9,500 and 11,000 feet. While both species are obviously hardy plants, bristlecone pines are stuff of legend. True masters of longevity, they endure not centuries but millennia. On rocky slopes beyond the end of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, you can walk among trees that have kept their grip on life for two to three thousand years - some much longer than that. A bristlecone pine found here was determined to be the world's oldest living thing: 4,950 years of age.
Not all bristlecones live that long. Ironically, the oldest trees are the ones growing near treeline where survival is the most difficult. Adversity, it appears, promotes long life. These trees grow slowly, one branch at a time. Even their needles can live up to 40 years. Often, a tree will appear nearly dead, with only a thin strip of living tissue clinging to a gnarled, naked trunk. Ordinary trees would decay under those conditions, but bristlecone wood has a high resin content, preventing rot. Instead, the wood erodes like stone, from wind and ice crystals. Even dead wood endures and is of scientific value; a piece 9,000 years old was found. At lower elevations, where conditions are less extreme, bristlecones grow faster and larger, but they die at the tender age of 300 or 400 years.
The Underground World
Lehman Caves (a single cavern despite the name) extends a quarter-mile into the limestone and marble that flanks the base of the Snake Range. Discovered about 1885 by Absalom Lehman, a rancher and miner, this cavern is one of the most profusely decorated caves in the region.
What we see today, began hundreds of thousands of years ago. Surface water, turned slightly acidic from carbon dioxide gas, mixed with water deep below the surface, dissolving the soluble rock at the horizontal water table. Evidence of the dissolving action from the slowly circulating water was recorded in the rock walls in the cave, in the form of spiracle domes in the ceilings and spoon-shaped scallops on the walls. Eventually, the water drained from the cave, leaving behind hollow rooms and sculptured walls.
Then came the second stage of cavern development. Water percolated downward from the surface, carrying with it small amounts of dissolved limestone, (calcite). Drop by drop, over the centuries, seemingly insignificant trickles deposited wonders of stone. The result is a rich display of cave formations, or as scientists call them, speleothems. Lehman Caves has such familiar cave formations as stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies, flowstone, and soda straws. There are also some rarities such as shields, which consists of two roughly circular plates fastened together like flattened clam shells, often with graceful stalactites and draperies hanging from their lower plate. Lehman Caves is most famous for its abundance of shields.
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