Wharton: Great Salt Lake Audubon, Utah's oldest conservation group going strong
Great Salt Lake Audubon, Utah's oldest conservation organization, offers its 220 members a simple mission statement: "To dedicate ourselves to protecting and enhancing habitat for wild birds, animals and plants and to maintaining healthy and diverse environments for wildlife and people throughout the state."
The organization traces its roots to 1912 when, according to current president Heather Dove, local naturalist Claude T. Barnes, who had studied birds since he was a kid, formed the Utah Audubon Society. Barnes felt that birds were underappreciated in Utah and that many residents regarded them as nothing more than a natural resource to be exploited.
Utah Audubon, one of the oldest National Audubon Society chapters, split into four groups in 1992 as more people became interested in birds. The original chapter became Great Salt Lake Audubon and was joined by Bridgerland Audubon in Logan, Red Cliffs Audubon in St. George and Wasatch Audubon in Ogden.
I was vaguely familiar with the group when Utah National Audubon Society employee Wayne Martinson approached me in the early 1990s. He wanted The Tribune to publish an in-depth story on the Great Salt Lake.
The result was a series of articles called "A Year With the Great Salt Lake" that introduced readers to the importance and uniqueness of a vastly underappreciated part of Utah geography. We used many Audubon members as sources.
Thus, on a recent afternoon over coffee, it was nice to reminiscence about the group and its mission with Dove, Jordan River restoration leader Keith Johnson, vice president Ray Smith, field trip coordinator Sylvia Gray, conservation chair Janice Huebner and past president Flo Krall Shepard.
The organization, which can be found online at http://www.greatsaltlakeaudubon.org, influences many aspects of Utah's natural history.
Take Huebner's work.
"One of the components of our organization is conservation," said the professional wildlife biologist. "We try to be good stakeholders on a number of issues, commenting on environmental impact statements and management plans."
That currently means working on a proposed potash mining expansion on the Great Salt Lake, sage grouse management, lead-shot poisoning of wildlife, energy development, air quality, the proposed Ski Link gondola joining The Canyons resort with Big Cottonwood Canyon and the Alton coal mine expansion.
"The Great Salt Lake is the best example of what happens when you start fiddling with nature," said Krall Shepard, a teacher and University of Utah professor who was a pioneer in Utah's environmental education movement. "The resources are so rich and the companies that mine them are so powerful. But every time something is done to the lake, it creates another problem."
On the other end of the spectrum, Great Salt Lake Audubon is a social group whose members enjoy nature. Gray helps organize between 70 and 75 field trips a year, most of which are free and open to the public.
"We encourage people to get outdoors and see what is there," she said. "Many people are not aware of the bounty of birds and other creatures. â¦ It has been rewarding to see the delight and amazement of people who didn't know what was out there."
Johnson helps head up a program to protect and restore 120 acres of Jordan River bottomlands at the south end of the Salt Lake Valley as a protected wildlife oasis.
The group also sells sunflower seeds to stock bird feeders and sponsors Christmas bird counts.
Smith, who helped start the group's popular Basin and Range seminars usually held in the spring since 1982, heads a group of volunteers with longtime member Jeanne LeBaer servicing bluebird boxes placed in the Strawberry area in 1988. I don't think I can ever recall attending an Audubon function that he was not a part of, working in his own quiet way to get things done.
And, in a way, that's similar to what Great Salt Lake Audubon has been about for the past 100 years. It's a group passionate about conservation whose members find satisfaction and enjoyment in the natural world that quietly but effectively works to protect and conserve its resources.