Environmental, indigenous groups gather to protect a ‘sacred’ site in Salt Lake City that’s planned to become a massive distribution hub

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Carl Moore, a Hopi and Chemehuevi Native American performs a hoop dance in honor of Mother Earth. Moore also made offerings, sang and gave a prayer during the May Day celebration. The "Stop the Polluting Port" community coalition staged a May Day celebration, calling for respect and awareness of the water, earth and air regarding the 20,000 acres west of Salt Lake City where the inland port industrial site has been proposed.

An off-white tepee rose up from a flat, expansive field in one of Salt Lake City’s largest untouched and most politicized landscapes on Wednesday afternoon.

It was there as a reminder of the Shoshone, Ute and Goshute tribes’ “sacred” ancestral hunting and gathering connections to this land — as well as a symbol of opposition to a massive state-run distribution hub that is planned for this area in the city’s northwesternmost side.

“I’ve heard politicians say this land has no use, it’s void,” Darren Parry, chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, told a group of nearly 50 people at a rally opposing that development on Wednesday. “And that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s full of life, and we need to do everything we can to be responsible in the way we grow so lands like these are protected for everyone going forward.”

The event, held in a remote parking lot near 7200 W. North Temple, was organized by a coalition of environmental, health and conservation organizations known as Stop the Polluting Port — a mantra that coincides with their stance toward the port.

The groups have long raised concerns about the potential environmental and health impacts of the development, which is expected to bring warehouses and increased truck, rail and air traffic, along with tailpipe emissions. They also fear the project will be used to subsidize coal and other fossil fuels.

They used the rally on Wednesday as an opportunity to talk about those concerns, address the importance of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem to bird habitats and other wildlife and to connect with the land that’s at stake in the port project in a new way, organizers said.

The event Wednesday featured live music, Native American performances of ancestral songs and an effort to clean up some of the litter in the area, which included an old mattress and at least two tires.

“The idea of this event is really you’ll be seeing birds fly overhead, you might even catch some antelope that come across, and it’s important to see how fragile the landscape really is,” Michael Cundick, co-chairman of the Salt Lake City Air Protectors, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It helps to really make it real to people to be on the landscape.”

The Great Salt Lake — one of Utah’s most well-known landmarks and a globally important area for more than 7 to 10 million birds — has shrunk to half its historic size since the pioneers arrived in 1847, according to researchers at Utah State University. Most of that decline can be attributed to human water use for industrial, agricultural and economic activities, and advocates worry the inland port development could push it over the edge.

“From an environmental standpoint, this proposed inland port cannot be situated in a worse location,” said Georgie Corkey, the conservation chairperson with the Great Salt Lake Audubon.

Amid such concerns, the Inland Port Authority Board, which is tasked with overseeing the development, has argued that the land will develop with or without its direction and that it could actually be more sustainable under state control.

Cundick said Wednesday that the 11-member board was aware of the rally but that “we were not too worried about their attendance.”

The port project has faced mounting public opposition in recent weeks, with a group of protesters going so far as to shut down the board’s most recent public meeting at the end of last month with a protest, in an effort to stop progress on the development. The board also faces litigation from Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who filed a lawsuit in March challenging the state’s takeover of the city’s land, taxing and zoning authority to create the project.

Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, encouraged attendees at the rally to “keep on fighting” the port, citing what she sees as a rushed project that seeks to benefit the wealthy few.

“We’re working to stop the polluting port,” she said. “It’s going to take all of us fighting very hard and probably for a long period of time to stop it — but I do believe that we can.”