Las Vegas Sun

February 25, 2024

Prospecting near Donner Party trail in Utah nixed

WENDOVER, Utah — For a second time, federal land managers have rejected a mineral exploration company's proposal to prospect for potash on a section of the western Utah desert crossed by the ill-fated Donner Party in 1846.

The Bureau of Land Management nixed an effort by Mesa Exploration Corp., which seeks to create a potash mine on a dry lakebed near the Nevada line about 20 miles north of Wendover.

The BLM denied a prospecting permit to Mesa Exploration last year, and the Vancouver, British Columbia-based company appealed that decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals.

Mesa Exploration submitted a new proposal aimed at settling the dispute four weeks ago, and the appeal is still pending after the BLM's latest rejection of the plan.

Historians praised the BLM's decision, saying unspoiled sections of historic trail traversed by covered-wagon pioneers in the West are rare and must be preserved.

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

T. Michael Smith, an archaeologist and past president of the Utah chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association, agreed.

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

An estimated 1,000 emigrants crossed the waterless section of the Hastings Cutoff across Utah's Great Salt Lake Desert en route to California, Smith said.

It helps to get out to such remote, desolate areas to appreciate what the earlier travelers faced, Bagley said.

Mesa Exploration wants to drill the Pilot Valley playa to determine 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, a consulting geologist for Mesa Exploration.

Such a mine could bring 20 to 50 jobs to the Wendover area, according to Emily Carter, mayor of West Wendover, Nevada.

After crossing Nevada, many of the 86 members of the Donner Party starved to death and others resorted to cannibalism to survive when stranded in the Sierra Nevada about 30 miles west of Reno, Nevada, in the winter of 1846-47.

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