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Wendover mayor wary as politicians join campaign for Utah's iconic Bonneville Salt Flats

Published November 30, 2015 1:16 pm

Poor conditions • All five of the major racing events that typically take place each summer were scrapped this year.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Growing numbers of Utah politicians have lent their support to a push for immediate federal action to preserve the Bonneville Salt Flats, but Wendover's mayor isn't sure the movement reflects his community's interests or is even rooted in science.

All five of the major racing events that typically take place on the Bonneville Salt Flats each summer were scrapped this year. Poor salt conditions also led to the cancellation of several events in 2014, so when 2015 started to look like a trend, the land-racing community began petitioning Utah's political leaders for aid, said Dennis Sullivan, president of the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association.

That effort appears to be bearing fruit. Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee sent a letter to Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze regarding his concern for the future of the Bonneville Salt Flats in light of "the last-minute cancellations of several international land-speed race events." And on the homefront, Gov. Gary Herbert composed his own letter to Kornze, requesting that the BLM "engage in an effort to start an immediate restoration program."



"Our alarm is amplified because the Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for the care and protection of this national historic landmark, has long identified the internationally famous speedway as an area of critical environmental concern," Herbert said, "and yet the Bonneville Salt Flats are not only severely damaged, but are, in fact, approaching ruin."

This movement isn't all talk, either; there's real political action involved, Sullivan said. A special interest group in Washington is working to introduce a bill to Congress that would "get the BLM" to make a plan to save the salt flats, he said. Locally, state Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, has said he intends to introduce a resolution that would support the restoration of the salt flats.

Racers hope that mining the political complex for support will put pressure on the BLM, which Sullivan said has "totally ignored" the racing community and the salt flats.

But Wendover Mayor Mike Crawford said the racing community might be overstating its own importance — possibly at the expense of Wendover residents.

"Racers seem to jump over us, too," he said, pointing out that the racing community went straight to the city's representatives to speak on the city's behalf. "Those aren't your senators, they're ours."

Racers, he said, "can't forget that this is our backyard."

Top priority • The BLM is "committed to responsibly maintaining" the salt flats, spokeswoman Megan Crandall said in a statement, and is looking forward to "continued collaboration with our many partners and stakeholders to ensure the salt flats remain protected."

The racing community has more specific plans in mind and hopes the political attention will spur the BLM to implement three projects the racers believe will reverse the decline of the salt flats.

First on the list would be revising current mineral leases to require that companies mining salts for the minerals contained within them pump at least a million tons of salt brine back onto the salt flats every year.

Brine-pumping began in the late 1990s as a voluntary experiment conducted by the BLM and several potash mining companies. But follow-up surveys conducted in the 2000s found no discernible increase in the depth of the salt crust, and the experiment was formally abandoned, although Intrepid Potash continues to voluntarily pump salt brine back onto the flats.

Sullivan insists brine-pumping does work — and the supposed failure comes down to a difference in what scientists and racers have in mind when they talk about the flats' "salt crust."

Geologists consider the "salt crust" as comprising many different layers of material, including the sticky mud that lies below the topmost layer of hard, consolidated salt. But, to the racers, the only thing that matters is the depth and stability of that upper layer, Sullivan said.

And that upper layer did benefit from the pumping, Sullivan said, so much so that some of the best racing in decades took place in the early 2000s.

"It's proven that [brine-pumping] does make a difference in the salt," Sullivan said. "And that's something that can be done right away, because the infrastructure is already in place."

Sullivan said it is imperative the BLM act to revise the mineral leases now instead of waiting for their expiration in 2023, because by then "there won't be any salt left to measure."

The racers also want the distribution canals for the brine expanded to improve distribution. They hope to erect a dike around the edge of the salt flats that would prevent mud from the surrounding mountains from flowing out onto the salt flats — as it did this year.

This isn't just about racing cars, he said. Wendover loses about $25,000 in tax revenue every time a race is canceled, he said, and all kinds of other activities take place out there, including filming for commercials and movies.

Take it up with Mother Nature • It's true that the salt flats are an important part of Wendover's economy and identity, said Crawford, who's a fan of land-speed racing and displays pictures and videos of historic salt-flat racing events at the auto shop he owns. But that's not all there is to Wendover.

"The racers feel that they're such an economic thing, but I just got my third-quarter reports — my revenue only went down $300," Crawford said.

"The casinos, they don't get hit very hard because they just have another event. Our food mart, I hear they got hit really hard, but nobody was laid off; nobody closed their business."

It's not that Wendover doesn't support the racers, he said. In fact, the city has gone out of its way to host dinners and events for the racers and even has plans for a land-speed-racing museum.

"It's nice to have the racers," he said, "but that's not why we're here."

As a lifelong Wendover resident, Crawford said rumors of the salt flats' demise may be overstated — this is the third cycle of decline he's observed in his lifetime. From what he can see, this summer's cancellations were the result of natural processes that may be exacerbated by the brine-pumping. The salt flats had a lot of rain much later in the year this summer, he said, and the mud that flowed onto the flats during the rains wasn't able to dry out and blow away because of the pumping.

"That's the thing that disappoints me — that they're not as knowledgeable as the should be of how the salt flats work," he said. "They want Mother Nature to be a constant companion to them every year, and I don't think it can be."

Wendover has seen some good come out of the additional publicity this year. The BLM did come out to meet with him three or four months back, Crawford said; it was the first visit since he's been serving in city government — three terms on the City Council and two as mayor. Their discussion went well, Crawford said.

"We need some science on it," he said. "Without the science, sometimes man and our best attempts to corral Mother Nature just makes it worse."

epenrod@sltrib.com

Twitter: @EmaPen

 

 

 

 

 

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