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The Canadian video group known as High on Life SundayFundayz is getting additional attention from the Bureau of Land Management after photos surfaced on Facebook showing the three men wakeboarding behind a bus on the flooded Bonneville Salt Flats.
While the costume-clad trio's well-documented antics are unusually flashy, experts say they're just part of a wider problem that may be contributing to the salt flats' decline thousands of people ignoring posted warnings and driving onto the flats in the off season when the salt crust is wet and vulnerable.
The BLM is now investigating the incident, said Lisa Reid, a spokeswoman for the agency, which was forwarded the photos earlier this month. High on Life SundayFundayz motto "If you can you should" posted them on its Facebook page in March.
Driving on the salt flats when standing water is present is prohibited on account of safety and environmental concerns, Reid said.
The salt flats regularly undergo a cycle of flooding and evaporation, said Brenda Bowen, a University of Utah geologist who is heading a study of the salt flats. When dry, the flats harden into a pavement-like crust that can withstand the weight of vehicles. But when the flats are wet, she said, the salt dissolves and the layers beneath are exposed and vulnerable to damage.
Driving on the wet flats compacts these muddy layers, Bowen said. That action closes off the tiny openings in the mud that allow salt water to rise to the top of the flats and deposit the characteristic salt crust each summer, preventing the salt crust from forming properly.
It's not clear how long the salt flats take to recover from this kind of damage, Bowen said, but the consequences may be permanent.
"Once the pore structure of the underlying sediment has changed, there is no natural process to 'repair' the texture back to its pre-existing condition," Bowen said. "Future surface processes will cover and alter the tracks, but it will never be as it was. Tracks from the Donner Party are still visible in the playa sediments nearby, so we know they can last for a long time."
Bowen said she believes this could be a significant factor in the salt flats' decline, depending on how many people are driving on the wet flats each winter.
"Every time I'm out there, I see people driving on the wet surface," she said. "There's a sign out there that says no driving when it's wet, and people ignore that. I think it's a huge problem."
Reid said it's impossible to estimate how many vehicles are driven onto the flats during the flood cycle each winter because the BLM does not constantly monitor the area for such activities. But at last week's BLM-hosted summit regarding the salt flats, representatives of the land-speed racing community that uses the flats for annual summer racing events like Speed Week said they had figures that suggest there are as many as 50 cars per day on the salt flats in the off-season.
Those vehicles can become trapped in the mud that in the summer is concealed by the hardened salt crust, presenting a safety hazard, Reid said.
High On Life SundayFundayz, which uses online videos and other media to promote its line of "feel-good" clothing, has also been criticized for its actions in Yellowstone and Arches national parks.
Arrest warrants for all three men were issued last week in Wyoming, related to charges that the men violated a statute that prohibits leaving the boardwalk in Yellowstone National Park and created "a hazardous or physically offensive condition." Each charge carries a penalty of up to six months in prison and a maximum fine of $5,000.
John Powell, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Wyoming, said the warrants were issued after his office obtained pictures that showed the men leaving the boardwalk to pose in front of Grand Prismatic hot spring, and images of the men's license plates.
Attempts to reach High on Life SundayFundayz for comment were unsuccessful.
As for the Utah incident, Reid said she wasn't sure what if any charges could be pursued, though the pictures appear to depict a violation of BLM policy.
Photos of the High on Life tour bus transversing the flooded salt flats prompted racer "Land Speed" Louise Noeth to send a letter to the marketing group decrying its actions.
"I am guessing that while you had a fabulous time ripping up the fragile salt crust under the thin layer of healing water that you had no idea the tremendous damage you did," she wrote. "You don't seem to be vicious animals, but more fun-loving knuckleheads who ignored the signs to respect the salt playa when covered with water."
In her letter, Noeth told the trio that at the salt flats summit, the land speed racing community had suggested the BLM construct a fence around the salt flats to prevent visitors from driving on the flats when the surface is wet.
Given the size of the salt flats, that proposal may not be possible, Reid said, but the BLM does plan to post additional signs on the flats to remind visitors that vehicles must remain on paved roads if the salt is wet.
But Bowen said it may be necessary to impose strict penalties for those caught violating the rules if the state wants to preserve the Bonneville Salt Flats.
"Maybe that's the only way to get people to follow what at this point is a polite request," she said. "Maybe [the posted guidelines] don't have enough teeth to keep people off of there."