Utah’s Fremont Island is sold to conservation buyer

A conservation buyer has acquired Fremont Island, the Great Salt Lake’s third-largest and only privately owned island, from would-be developers who envisioned a 12,000-unit subdivision on the 2,943-acre island in Weber County. The moves sets the stage for the sensitive island’s permanent protection.

The island had been purchased two years ago by the monster truck enthusiasts behind the Diesel Brothers television show as a potential motorized sports venue. Their vision evolved into a proposal for an “amazing master-planned community that would provide thousands of homes,” according to a news release Tuesday from the sellers' representative, Zach Hartman of Land Advisors Organization.

After it proved difficult to secure state and county approvals for the rights of way needed to develop the island, co-owner Gavin Dickson went looking for a buyer who had the expertise and means for conserving the land, Hartman said in an interview.

Hartman is bound by a nondisclosure agreement that bars him from divulging the sale price or the name of the buyer.

A search of public records, however, shows the new owner is the Palladium Foundation, headed by Salt Lake City philanthropist Jennifer Speers, who chairs the board of the Nature Conservancy’s Utah chapter. Her nonprofit land conservation organization acquired Fremont Island in a deal that closed Sept. 4. The sales price was not disclosed but Weber County assesses the property at $882,912.

News of Speers' involvement in the deal came as a huge relief to Lynn de Freitas, executive director of Friends of Great Salt Lake who has long feared that Fremont Island’s ecological values were at risk under its prior ownership.

“Finally Fremont Island has found the right match, someone who cares about conservation, cares about the Great Salt Lake, understands what the value of Fremont Island is as a habitat, as a historic part of the Great Salt Lakes ecosystem,” de Freitas said. “It’s heartening to know that the island is now in good, responsible hands.”

Efforts to reach Speers were not successful Thursday.

Speers has acquired delicate lands elsewhere in Utah, most notably Needles Outpost, a mile square section of former state trust land at the entrance to Canyonlands National Park. At a state auction in 2017, her representative drove up the bidding to $2.5 million in what may have been one of highest per-acre prices ever fetched for land sold by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration. That purchase denied would-be developers a chance of building a hotel or a resort at the entrance to the park.

Fremont Island’s prior owner Dave Sparks, who starred as Heavy D on the “Diesel Brothers” show, and his partners never provided state officials with specific plans for the island, according to Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, which administers lands under navigable waters. The agency did grant them an easement across the dry lake bed to access the island by vehicle. The owners used that easement to drive their “Freedom Bus” to the island.

Situated inside Hooper’s city limits, the island is located four miles off the Weber County mainland near the mouth of Bear River Bay.

A big subdivision on Fremont Island would have met stiff opposition from Utah’s environmental community, and would have also faced many practical obstacles, like road and utilities access and sewage treatment. Getting those kind of improvements built across state-owned lake bed would have been challenging to get approved, but Hartman said his company had the experience and talent to pull it off.

At a presentation in July before Hooper’s planning commission, Hartman unveiled a concept for covering 30% of the island with 10,000 to 12,000 units, leaving the rest open for trails and outdoor recreational access. Hartman envisioned a freshwater connection to the island extended from Willard Bay and a marina.

Such a development would effectively triple Hooper’s population. De Freitas, who had not heard of the proposal before Thursday, questioned how such a plan could go anywhere given the island’s lack of access and its location in the midst of sensitive habitat used by millions of migratory birds.

“It seems Fremont Island was the target of speculation in contradiction of what the island signifies right in the middle of [Utah] sovereign lands,” she said. “It would be hell on Earth to live out there because you would be inundated with exposed lake bed dust.”