After decades of neglect in the hands of various private owners, Great Salt Lake’s third-largest island is now in state ownership and open for public access, although not by motor-powered wheeled vehicles. The 3,000-acre Fremont Island is to be protected from development or damage under a long-term conservation easement held by The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
The move announced Monday culminates a monthslong effort by Utah philanthropists to rescue the island from an aggressive although far-fetched development proposal that envisioned 12,000 housing units, despite a lack of road access, water or utilities.
The island, located a few miles off the lake’s east shore and within the Hooper city limits, will be overseen by the state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, which already manages the bed of the Great Salt Lake.
“There will probably be a little bit more human presence than there has been in the past, but it’ll all be in the form of nonmotorized,” said agency spokesman Jason Curry. “Overall, though, that’s a nice thing for the public to be able to to access it as public land and get some appreciation for the historical points there on the island and to just experience it.”
Mule deer and pronghorn inhabit the island, which will remain off-limits to hunting.
“There’s not really much water to speak of, not a ton of wildlife, it’s pretty desolate, but it’s not a lot of people’s bucket list to go out to the island and visit it,” Curry said.
The agency made the announcement Monday in a news release that did not identify the donor, Jennifer Speers.
Weber County property records indicate the Palladium Foundation, a conservation-oriented nonprofit Speers founded in Salt Lake City, purchased the island on Sept. 4 for an undisclosed sum and later donated the land to the state and its development and hunting rights to TNC. Those rights are effectively retired and the land will be managed as a nature preserve.
“Millions of shorebirds and waterfowl depend on the Lake’s resources,” said David Livermore, the organization’s Utah state director. “The conservation of Fremont Island has been a high priority for many years.”
Through private land conservation, TNC has worked to protect Great Salt Lake’s wetlands and natural features for the past 35 years. But the preservation of Fremont Island had been a goal that went unfilled for decades before a local conservationist connected Spears with the island’s former owners, a partnership that included the monster-truck entrepreneur David “Heavy D” Sparks of the Discovery Channel’s “Diesel Brothers” program.
At the time, the owners had been looking to get bought out by someone with the means to conserve the island.
Besides serving as a critical foraging and staging area for migratory shorebirds and waterfowl, Fremont Island is steeped in human history dating back thousands of years, starting with Native Americans, such as Paiute and Shoshone tribes, who inhabited the Great Salt Lake region.
The island is named for explorer John Fremont, whose 1843 expedition marked the first visit by white people after they paddled to it in a rubber boat in 1843. From the island’s summit, Fremont and his cartographer Charles Preuss, drew the first map of Great Salt Lake and surrounding geographic features, according to history provided by TNC. Expedition member, the legendary frontiersman Kit Carson, carved a cross on a rock which is still visible today.
Fremont’s account of his journey, published in 1845, is believed to have helped lure Mormon pioneers, led by Brigham Young, to the Salt Lake Valley, where they established Utah’s first non-Indian settlement in 1847.
The public may now visit the island as long as they arrive by foot or boat. From the Antelope Island Causeway, people can walk along an exposed 6-mile-long sandbar to the southern end of Fremont Island. Since parking is not allowed on the causeway, hikers would have to park their vehicles in Antelope Island State Park to begin their trek. Or they can ride a bike to the island from the park.
Driving on the lake bed is strictly forbidden and is subject to criminal penalties that start at $600.
Boating is the preferred way to reach the island, but it is not without its challenges. Water near Fremont Island is so shallow that a flat-bottomed vessel is the best option. Kayaking or rowing can turn into an ordeal because winds can kick up without warning.