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Wharton: Do we need West Davis Highway?

Published March 21, 2013 11:49 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

While studying the routes of the proposed West Davis Highway, my memory drifted back to two amazing experiences I had with birds and wetlands that could be affected by this new road.

One involved a study of snowy plovers. Biologists went out near what to the naked eye looked like a useless mudflat. This was a place that, depending on the year and the weather, may or may not be under water. But it was anything but useless land to the plovers, who nested on the flats.

Another trip took me into a more typical wetland where I watched biologists survey and count nesting white-faced ibis. The nests and birds seemed to be everywhere, the marsh alive with the wonder of new life.

If I had my druthers, there would be no West Davis Highway.

That said, I don't face a commute every day along crowded Interstate 15 between where the Legacy Parkway ends north to Weber County. I don't own a home or business that would be negatively affected or even condemned if the alignment is moved farther east. And I'm not a highway planner charged with keeping main arteries from turning into gridlocked parking lots.

If I read the studies correctly, the road will inevitably destroy both homes and wetlands.

It will be interesting to see what lessons the highway planners from the Utah Department of Transportation learned from the Legacy Highway project, which suffered costly delays when environmentalists successfully sued to change the alignment away from wetlands.

This is a classic battle between the needs of the natural world located next to a growing urban area. It will inevitably lead to compromises that will cost money and upset both sides.

What I do resent, however, are those who look at the Great Salt Lake ecosystem as nothing more than a worthless swamp that stinks in the summer, wastes water and could be drained or eliminated at no great loss to the world.

It's not just that these wetlands serve society in so many ways — including improving water quality, offering flood protection, providing a place for millions of birds to rest or nest and providing recreation for hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers.

The Great Salt Lake is a site of hemispheric importance for wildlife. Historic manmade wildlife refuges such as Farmington Bay, Public Shooting Grounds, Salt Lake and Ogden Bay provide an irreplaceable stop for migrating birds.

And its natural salt marshes, as epitomized by The Nature Conservancy's Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve west of Layton, are an important remnant of the lake's unique ecology.

Yes, moving cars is important. And there needs to be land for homes and businesses.

But when do we grow to the point where we begin fouling our own human nests? When and where do we say that an ecological system is so important to society that it is worth preserving?

Specifically with regards to the Great Salt Lake, when do we reach the point that we have diverted so much water, filled in so many wetlands and ignored its benefits that we reach a tipping point and one of the world's most unique places is forever altered in a negative way?

I was around for the floods of the mid-1980s when the lake level rose and threatened roads and homes built in its flood plain. Do we really want to spend millions of dollars on highways and allow new businesses and homes to be built on the lake's edge, only to have a couple of unusual wet years put them all under water?

I hope we don't build a West Davis Highway. But, if it has to be constructed, I hope it can be built as far away as possible from the Great Salt Lake and its precious wetlands.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter @tribtomwharton