Ann Neville knows environmentalists are skeptical when they hear she works as a wildlife biologist for Kennecott Rio Tinto. She admits that even she struggled when she began working in 1997 for the big copper-mining company with operations on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley.
Many of her concerns vanished when she actually began working on projects that included helping create a 3,700-acre Great Salt Lake shorebird reserve on Kennecott property; managing species such as elk, mule deer and wild turkey that inhabit the large part of the Oquirrh Mountains owned but not mined by her company; working on fire control; and trying to eliminate weeds such as phragmites and thistle.
In fact, only 30 percent of the 100,000 acres the company owns are affected by mining.
"We honestly want to do the right thing," said Neville recently as she took me on a spring-morning tour of Kennecott’s Inland Sea Shorebird Reserve. "The sticky thing comes when people are trying to decide what the right thing is. I would much rather work within the group and feel like I am making a difference than only coming from the outside."
Seeing the diversity of birds and wildlife on a spring morning on the private property north of I-80 across from Kennecott’s tailings area can be a revelation.
Two coyotes cross our path, as does a huge rabbit. A dozen or so antelope, refugees from nearby Antelope Island, quietly watch us. Red-winged blackbirds chirp in the distance. Some of the season’s first curlews and snowy plovers dance in the mud flats and shallow water, creating intricate patterns. Ann shows me a bridge where she often sees barn owls. Avocets dance in the marshes, set for breeding. Meadowlarks sing.
It is difficult to believe that just a few short years ago, this place looked much different. The land wasn’t managed. The public abused it, often using as it a place for illegal dumping, off-highway vehicle use, target practice and even a nude beach.
The property is part of a larger marsh system that includes mitigation wetlands built by the Salt Lake International Airport and the National Audubon Society’s Gilmoor Reserve. The reserves have become a lush marsh that caters to more than 200 species of migratory birds.
Neville can use water from Jordan River canals, the Goggin drain and a series of small dams and diversions to manage nine ponds. Working with other biologists, she has labored to eliminate the avian botulism and cholera that plague the Great Salt Lake marshes from time to time. She also has worked to preserve some of the salt-tolerant plants favored by insects that are eaten by birds around the lake.
The biologist is often amazed at the wildlife she has seen, including a rare upland sandpiper. She snapped a photo of it, which was fortunate because most birders didn’t believe her.
"I have the best job at Kennecott," she said. "It is amazing. It is beautiful. I have really come to appreciate this place. I grew up in Davis County and was used to being able to see the whole valley. Now I work at the bottom of the soup bowl looking at these mountains. It’s gorgeous."
But, at least for a year, Neville’s job is taking an unusual turn. Rio Tinto has a mining operation in Mongolia on the Gobi Desert. She is going to live there for a year, trying to do for Mongolia‘s wildlife what she has done for the western part of the Salt Lake Valley.
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