Op-ed: Action, Not More Study, is Needed to Save Bonneville Salt Flats

By Louise Ann Noeth

Published: June 7, 2016 01:33PM

For more than 50 years, the land speed racing community has sounded the alarm that the Bonneville Salt Flats were being destroyed by U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) mismanagement. The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial calling for patience while yet another study, the seventh to date, is undertaken was filled with factual errors and reaches the wrong conclusion.

The Bonneville Salt Flats are over 60 miles long and divided in half by railroad tracks and highways. Land speed racing began in 1914 (not 1933) and since the 1930s the racetracks have been located on the north side, with most of the potash mining to the south. Potash is extracted through solar evaporation leaving behind purified salt as a waste product.

The two activities lived in harmony until the 1960s, when the BLM began issuing leases allowing salt to be transferred south through miles of ditches without any scientific proof that no damage would be done.

Until 1997, the salt transfer was a one-way street. The BLM allowed an estimated 100 million tons of salt to be removed from the BSF and not returned. In fact, much of the salt is currently located in “Pond 5,” a mine evaporative processing pond that sits on BLM land.

The racing community and mine owner created a salt brine return program in the 1990s and secured BLM’s approval to implement. When pumped at levels of 1.6 and 1.7 million tons/year, the program stabilized Bonneville’s crust and demonstrated small increases. However, in recent years, Intrepid Potash-Wendover’s pumping has ranged from 0 to 600,000 tons.

The racing community represented by the Save the Salt Coalition/Utah Alliance has issued a comprehensive plan for restoring Bonneville, which includes increased pumping and targets Pond 5 as a resource. Water is available through existing wells and new sources beyond the Bonneville aquifers.

Meanwhile, the BLM has only called for yet another study while ignoring those it has already conducted relying on a recreational management plan that is more than 30 years old. One such study noted, “Weather cycles may partly explain changes on the Bonneville salt crust. But the activities of man, such as withdrawing brine and constructing surface-drainage barriers, have altered the hydrologic environment and have had a profound effect on the salt crust.”

Bonneville is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and deemed an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. Yet the BLM has allowed its health to reach critical condition despite designations linked to the racing venue that should trigger protective actions.

The racing community is not the only voice calling for protection. Last October, Gov. Gary Herbert sent a letter urging BLM Director Neil Kornze to engage in an effort to start an immediate BSF restoration program.

Echoing the governor’s clarion call were letters from Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, Sen. Harry Reid and Sen. Dean Heller, Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Rob Bishop, as well as descendants of Salt Lake City mayor and Bonneville racer Ab Jenkins.

In March, Herbert signed a resolution passed by the Utah Legislature (sponsored by Rep. Stephen Handy and Sen. Peter Knudson) urging the BLM to formulate a plan to restore the BSF International Speedway to safe land speed racing conditions.

Since the BLM is a federal agency, the racing community is now calling on the U.S. Congress to provide direction through legislation.

Utah has been blessed with a unique land formation that beckons visitors from around the world as well as generations of Utahns. For speed and safety, there is no comparison between Bonneville’s hard salt crust and Black Rock’s soft dirt surface as a racing venue.

Besides that, the BLM effectively closed Black Rock to racing since the playa’s small windswept dirt berms are “protected” and can no longer be leveled for a track.

Also, only Wendover can accommodate tens of thousands of racers and spectators who generate millions of dollars in economic activity.

The “speed freaks” agree with the Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial when it says that this is not a new issue. The racing community joins with the governors, Utah Legislature and congressional leaders in calling on the BLM to safeguard Bonneville for future generations. This will only occur if there is an immediate restoration program.

“LandSpeed” Louise Ann Noeth is Save the Salt Coalition/Utah Alliance’s public information officer.

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