The Uncompahgre Plateau, an amazing and unique landscape, is the site of the Uncompahgre Plateau Project. The word Uncompahgre is a Ute Indian word with many connotations describing water – “Dirty Water” or “Rocks that make Water Red”. Geologic formations of Precambrian granite, Morrison and Dakota sandstones and Mancos shale dominate the Plateau, creating some of the beautiful colored canyons and formations.
Located in Southwest Colorado, the Uncompahgre Plateau is a high domed upland rising from the Colorado River (4600’), peaking at 10,300’ at the top of Horsefly Peak, and running approximately 90 miles southeast to the base of the San Juan Mountains. The summit ridge of the Plateau is relatively flat with an average elevation of 9,500’ that runs southeast to northwest. The summit ridge drops off quickly on the west side and more gradually slopes downward on the east side. The Plateau is incised by many deep canyons separated by relatively flat mesas that generally run perpendicular to the summit ridge. Large canyons such as Big Red, Tabeguache, Spring Creek, Roubideau, Escalante, Big Dominquez, and Unaweep expose numerous geologic layers. The Plateau watersheds include four major drainages of the Colorado River (Dolores, Gunnison, San Miguel and Uncompahgre Rivers). The project area is divided into 20 principal watersheds.
For the purpose of the Uncompahgre Project, the boundaries can be generally described as the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers on the West, Unaweep Canyon or Highway 141 on the north, the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Rivers on the east and Colorado Highway 62 on the south.
The project area encompasses 2,290 square miles or is approximately 1.5 million acres in size. Approximately 75% of the project area is public land. The USFS manages 545,907 acres (37%), BLM manages 545,280 acres (37%), and the State of Colorado manages 8,689 acres (<1%). Federal land administration on the Plateau is shared among three USFS Ranger Districts and two BLM field offices. State lands are administered by the Colorado State Land Board and Colorado Division of Wildlife. Private lands account for 365,547 acres (25%) and are located primarily in or near the Uncompahgre Valley. The UP area is divided among five counties (Delta, Mesa, Montrose, Ouray, San Miguel) and is bordered by the communities of Ridgway, Colona, Montrose, Olathe, Delta, Whitewater, Gateway, Naturita, Nucla and Norwood.
The Plateau is comprised of several life zones. The Plains Zone in Western Colorado is from 4500’ to 6000’, comprised of riparian (or green zones) along the stream tributaries. Cottonwoods, sumac, and rabbit-brush are some of the native vegetation types in this zone which transitions into pinyon-juniper, sagebrush, shrubby desert plants and sparse grasses and forbs. The Foothills Zone, 6000-8000’, is dominated by pinyon-juniper trees throughout the Plateau. Ponderosa pine, blue spruce and scattered aspens form open woodlands at the upper elevation of this zone and into the Montane Zone.
The transition zone between the Foothills Zone and Montane Zone is dominated by shrub lands, primarily composed of mountain mahogany, serviceberry, Gambel oak and snowberry. The Montane Zone – 8000-10000’ is dominated by the shrub lands to about 9000’ before intermixing with ponderosa pine and larger stands of aspens, which eventually mix with denser stands of spruce-fir at the top of the Plateau.