A few years earlier, Robidoux had established Fort Uncompahgre near present-day Delta, Colorado, then built a second maison traitte (or “house of trade”) 100 miles north in the Uintah Basin, bookending access to the abundant beaver, deer, elk, and bear of the Uinta Mountains and Book Cliffs. But Robidoux’s venture was short-lived. In 1844, the Utes burned both his outposts — because he was a huckster and dealer of Indian slaves, the story goes — and Robidoux passed into the fog of Western history.

This part of Utah, one of the most remote reaches of the Lower 48, has a long history of attempted exploitation of its natural riches. Today, companies are eyeing another potential source of wealth, this one underground. One small Canadian company believes it holds the key to developing the sizeable deposits of bitumen, or tar sands, that are splattered across the eastern and central part of the state like mud on a pickup’s front fender.

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