This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
How many dead pelicans does it take to fertilize a lawn? Or grow an apple?
This is not a stand-up comedian's joke. It's the essence of the debate over a proposed expansion of Great Salt Lake Minerals Corp.'s potassium sulfate mining from a lake that is as important as it is ancient.
GSLMM's operations can be characterized as relatively benign in that the mineral -- which is organic -- is harvested by simply drying the water and separating out the potassium. Demand for the fertilizer has increased, so GSLMM last year asked the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources for approval of a new 52,200-acre expansion.
Any expansion will mean disruptive construction of ponds, ditches and dikes. To mitigate the impacts, however, GSLM offered a trade of what it said was good habitat, promising that those 30,000 acres would be let go from GSLM control.
But those acres would not have automatic protection from future development. And now GSLM wants more than 100,000 acres to evaporate out potassium sulfate. If allowed to move forward, the operation will threaten the wild birds of Gunnison Island.
So forgive me if reassurances from GSLM officials and others that the proposed expansion won't hurt the environment don't reassure. This is a company that has said one thing and done another. And pardon me if the touted economic benefits don't seem that great. Fifty new jobs and an additional $5 million per year in revenues to the state? Sounds good -- on paper. But what GSLM has put on paper is already hard to trust.
One wonders if a state rich in sustainable resources such as sunshine and wind might create more jobs and more revenue in less destructive ways.
Would 100,000 new acres devoted to potassium extraction be that destructive? According to Keith Evans and Wayne Martinson in their book "Utah's Featured Birds and Viewing Sites," "One of the largest nesting colonies of American White Pelican ... in the nation is at Gunnison Island... ." Furthermore, what we see today is a legacy of the past: "It is believed American White Pelicans were common in the Great Basin area during the era of Lake Lahontan and Lake Bonneville. Remains of several ancient nesting colonies have been observed on the old shorelines of mountains that would have been islands during this time frame."
It's likely that the GSLM expansion would destroy the pelican colony on Gunnison Island because this species is exquisitely sensitive. "To be successful," Evans and Martinson write, "American White Pelicans need isolated islands to nest without predators and human disturbance."
The 25,000 pelicans that feed in Gunnison Bay and the thousands of young they fledge off Gunnison Island face almost certain diminishment if not outright devastation if GSLM is allowed to operate close to the island. In low-water years, people and predators will be able to walk to the island. And we will have lost another breeding site for this magnificent bird, a bird that has seen its western nesting colonies contract by more than 50 percent to fewer than 10 sites today.
Pelicans are ponderously graceful descendants of dinosaurs. Not long ago I was on a ridge in Logan Canyon with a friend who called out, "Look, look!" There, like snowflakes with wings, were white pelicans banking high above a north-facing slope of Douglas fir; this is a form of inheritance beyond commodity.
We can still make a practical argument for protecting the pelicans of Gunnison Island. Think of them and it as rivets on an airplane. The metaphor isn't mine, but I love its point. How many of us would fly on an airline that didn't care if its planes lost rivets on a regular basis? Lose enough rivets and something important goes, like, say, the tail.
The time is now for policymakers -- especially those at the Army Corps of Engineers, which is reviewing the GSLM plan -- to heed the advice of their physicians: First, do no harm.
Christopher Cokinos is a member of the Bridgerland Audubon Society Board and lives in Nibley.