Opinion: Get to know Utah’s wetlands, and you’ll to learn to love them

Without knowing a place intimately, how can one act on its behalf?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wetland by the Great Salt Lake is photographed Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023.

This semester, as part of my environmental writing class at the University of Utah, I have been researching the Utah Inland Port Authority’s (UIPA) decision to develop the Golden Spike Inland Port just half a mile from the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, which lies on the northeast arm of Great Salt Lake. I wanted to understand why this project was approved despite serious environmental concerns regarding its impact on wetlands.

When I first started my research, I had never visited the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, nor had I spent much time near Great Salt Lake. I knew in a general sense that construction damages ecosystems, but it was hard for me to visualize the specific impacts on the refuge. I did not feel connected to the wetlands, and I wondered how common this disconnect is. How many of us who live along the Wasatch Front will notice when UIPA builds warehouses on the shores of GSL or when migratory birds stop nesting there? Perhaps one reason why the Golden Spike Inland Port location was chosen is an indifference to wetlands.

I once shared this indifference. I moved to Utah in 2020 with the broad goal of spending more time outside. I largely disregarded wetlands, and instead I prioritized alpine environments like Little Cottonwood Canyon, where I have worked for two winters and recreated year-round. I have been delighted by its pink Indian paintbrush and shimmering lakes; awed by its snowy peaks and majestic granite. When I heard about UDOT’s plans to build a gondola up the Canyon, I could visualize vividly how its support towers, with an average height of 169 feet, would alter the character of the land. I felt unnerved when I imagined how much earth and rock would have to be displaced to install the towers and how much rubble would make its way into the swift waters of Little Cottonwood Creek.

My concern for Little Cottonwood Canyon stems from my connection to it. It is a form of ecological compassion. This concept was introduced to me by the writer and plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, who in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass,” wrote: “The circle of ecological compassion we feel is enlarged by direct experience of the living world, and shrunken by its lack.”

Shrunken by its lack. Without knowing a place intimately, how can one act on its behalf?

Compared to my relationship with Little Cottonwood, my relationship with the wetlands seems pathetically surface-level. Yet now is the wetlands’ time of need, as much as it is the canyon’s. With the shrinking of GSL, its wetlands are at risk of disappearing. To add insult to injury, UIPA is planning to build not just Golden Spike, but several inland port locations near both Utah Lake and Great Salt Lake. Stop the Polluting Port, an anti-UIPA advocacy group, released a report on Nov. 6 identifying UIPA as the single greatest threat to GSL’s wetlands, despite their new wetlands protection policy.

Stop the Polluting Port points out that many of the UIPA’s project sites intrude on GSL’s edge habitats, which support a greater diversity of birds than do open waters. Not only will the ports directly displace bird habitat, construction will also lead to increased stormwater runoff, light and noise pollution and emissions from the high volume of trucks and locomotives.

While UIPA writes on their website that Utah is uniquely positioned for growth because it is “at the crossroads of America’s West,” Stop the Polluting Port points out that “Great Salt Lake is the crossroads of the West for the avian world,” serving as an important stopover for migratory birds along both the Pacific and Central Flyways.

UIPA is risking the future of the avian world for the sake of generating economic growth. And it’s not just the birds that stand to lose. Wetlands are one of the planet’s most productive and diverse types of habitat, serving important ecological functions such as filtering water and sequestering carbon.

Over the last few months, I have begun finding opportunities to visit GSL’s wetlands. The more I get to know them, the more they and their avian residents capture my imagination. They are not without their challenges (read: bugs!), but by refusing to coddle us, nature dares us to take a step away from our human-centered worldview.

UIPA’s plans for port development merit a public outpouring of support for wetlands. And the spark for support is direct experience. I say let’s watch the sunset from Antelope Island. Let’s bike or walk on the gravel trail in Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area. Let’s watch the tundra swan migration pass through Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. With winter’s approach, the mosquitoes are not so bad. And the more we know what we’re losing, the less we’ll be willing to let it go.

Katya Brooun

Katya Brooun is a student at the University of Utah. She is interested in medicine and the environment.

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