Could the U.S. military help save the Great Salt Lake?

A new designation aims to help protect the lake and the four military installations along its ecosystem and watershed.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A helicopter flyover during Utah National Guard Governor's Day at Camp Williams on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023.

The shores of the Great Salt Lake are best known for their abundant but threatened bird life and brine shrimp. But the ecosystem is also home to four U.S. military installations.

Last month, the Great Salt Lake’s health officially became a concern of the military through the department’s Sentinel Landscapes Partnership program. Through the program, the Great Salt Lake could receive federal dollars for efforts like water conservation.

“If we lose the Great Salt Lake, then the military can’t function,” said Tyler B. Smith, the installation resiliency program manager with the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs.

The Great Salt Lake Sentinel Landscape spans 2.7 million acres and is one of 18 Sentinel Landscapes across the United States.

Roughly three and a half million acres of the Mojave Desert, two million acres of Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, and Hawaii Islands and part of northwest Florida are part of the Landscape Sentinel Program. The Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, and Department of the Interior created the program in 2013 to “strengthen military readiness, conserve natural resources, bolster agricultural and forestry economies, increase public access to outdoor recreation, and enhance resilience to climate change,” according to the program’s website.

“Everything that is done in the name of climate change,” Smith said, “[like] environmental projects that help communities be more resilient, it takes money.”

(Sentinel Landscapes) A screenshot from the Sentinel Landscapes website shows the new Great Salt Lake Sentinel Landscape boundaries.

Conservation easements on wild and agricultural lands could be one way to use those dollars — although Smith noted that the military will only work with willing landowners. “In no way will it ever infringe upon the rights of the landowner, it’s completely voluntary,” Smith said.

For example, Department of Defense and army programs helped preserve 662 acres near Camp Williams in Bluffdale.

The Sentinel Landscapes Partnership model is already working effectively in other states, Smith said. “There’s a lot of wildlife habitat that’s been preserved,” he said, “a lot of lands are being acquired and conveyed back to Native American tribes.”

Smith said, “a lot of our focus is going to be on water sources, and improving watersheds and water conservation and things of that nature.”

The Utah Inland Port Authority is currently proposing and developing industrial projects along the shores of the Great Salt Lake on sensitive wetlands. Could the military potentially step in to preserve those lands instead?

Smith said that the Great Salt Lake Landscape Sentinel priorities “are completely consistent with the state’s priorities,” and “it all works hand in hand.”

“So if there is any kind of nature based project related to the inland port, absolutely, we’ll consider that as one of them as long as it meets our goals and objectives,” Smith said.