A Brief History of the Cottonwood Canyons

The beautiful trees and vegetation of the Wasatch mountains that we enjoy now have not always been thriving. An ever-growing population has left its marks on the mountains.  

For many years, the Wasatch Mountains were home to animals and the Gosuite, Shoshoni, and Ute Native American tribes. These tribes were nomadic hunters and gatherers and mainly lived in the valleys where they could follow the fish and big game in the mountains¹. In the 1800s, early settlers, mainly Mormon pioneers, began coming to the area and displaced the indigenous people. The settlers required wood to build homes and to use for fuel, due to the lack of coal in the area. They built lumber mills to ease the process and established a strong lumber industry in the Wasatch Mountains which thrived for many years. 

At the same time, the mining industry in the Wasatch grew and miners used lumber to create support beams for mine shafts. By the end of the 1800s, due to the lumber and mining industries, most of the big trees in the area were gone and areas where mining was more prevalent saw the harshest consequences. 

Sheep grazing was also common in the Wasatch at the time. Herds of sheep grazed throughout the Wasatch Mountains and contributed to the destabilization of the area by eating the grasses found in the area. This heavy grazing damaged the watersheds and stripped the Wasatch hillsides of vegetation needed to prevent natural disasters such as landslides and flooding².


Photo of sheep grazing in Utah mountains, courtesy of J. Willard Marriott Digital Library


During this time, “demand for timber continued to increase and the need for timber management was soon recognized… In the 1850’s, [local leaders] were given control over important canyons and associated resources by territorial legislative grants. This form of timber regulation worked well during the initial stages of colonization when the emphasis was on subsistence and property rights were not well established. But, by the time communities were established, stewardship gave way to free enterprise as many settlers took advantage of timber resources for a profit, despite efforts to control resource utilization… By the 1880’s, timber resources along the Wasatch Front had been reduced to the point that timber was being brought in from the Sierra Nevadas and Chicago”³.

Due to similar issues throughout the nation, Congress passed the Organic Administration Act in 1897 which allowed National Forest Reserves to be established to improve watersheds and to control the condition of forested areas often used for lumber. This act led to the creation of the Division of Forestry, which later became the U.S. Forest Service. Their purpose was to maintain the lands “to its most productive use for the permanent good of the whole people and not for the temporary benefit of individuals and companies…[but] for the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run”⁴. 

In the early 1900s in the Wasatch Mountains there was “a great deal of resource damage… from overgrazing and uncontrolled fires. Watersheds were so heavily grazed and severe summer floods occurred and regularly polluted water supplies…. Timber was free and loggers removed all the choice trees”⁵.


Photo of flooding in Parley’s Canyon courtesy of J. Willard Marriott Digital Library


Due to these difficulties, in 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt created the Salt Lake Forest Reserves stating, 

And whereas, the public lands in the State of Utah… are in part covered with timber, and it appears that the public good would be promoted by setting apart and reserving said lands as public reservations;

Now, Therefore, I, Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested by section twenty-four of the aforesaid Act of Congress, do hereby make known and proclaim that there are hereby reserved from entry or settlement and set apart as public reservations all those certain tracts, pieces or parcels of land lying and being situate in the State of Utah, and within the boundaries particularly described…The reservations hereby established shall be known as The Salt Lake Forest Reserves.”⁶

A few years later, Salt Lake City and the U.S. Forest Service began a reforestation process in order to preserve the watershed from pollution and in 1910 they established the Wasatch Nursery in Big Cottonwood Canyon where Spruces Campground is now found. Here, Forest Servicemen and volunteers worked together to grow seedlings of native conifer trees and grasses which were grown for two years and then transplanted throughout hillsides in the Wasatch Canyons. These trees are what make up the forests we have today and have restored the forests of the Wasatch⁷.


Photo of Reynolds Flat taken in 2008 courtesy of J. Willard Marriott Digital Library


The work of the Wasatch Nursery was finished by the mid- 1920s and the City and servicemen abandoned the nursery. Some non-native trees can still be found at the Spruces campground where the nursery once was and they are reminders of the work done by those of the Wasatch Nursery. 

To learn more about the vegetation found in the Central Wasatch, explore the Environmental Dashboard.



Written by Madeline Pettit


End Notes:

  1. https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/uwcnf/learning/history-culture?cid=FSEM_035530
  2. https://ag.utah.gov/utah-grazing-improvement-program/history-of-grazing-in-utah/ 
  3. https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/uwcnf/learning/history-culture/?cid=stelprdb5052887
  4. https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fsem_035417.pdf 
  5. https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/uwcnf/learning/history-culture?cid=FSEM_035530
  6. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/proclamation-529-establishment-the-salt-lake-forest-reserve-utah 
  7. https://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=56598789&itype=CMSID 

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