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Are the ailing Bonneville Salt Flats destined to be mud flats?

Utah legislative panel hears request for funds to save iconic area

SALT LAKE CITY — The iconic Bonneville Salt Flats — shimmering among 30,000 acres in western Utah — are turning into the Bonneville Mud Flats.

A new effort wants to save them for speed racing, for filming and simply for visiting.

"It is a bucket list visit for literally millions of people from around the world," said John Russell Dean, president of Save the Salt.

Added Dennis Sullivan, another Bonneville Salt Flats enthusiast: "They are world-famous and I would not like to see them go away in my lifetime."

Sullivan, chairman of the Save the Salt Alliance, noted the flats' contribution to racing but also their mystic draw.

This Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016, photo, shows the pit area at the Bonneville Salt Flats, near Wendover. Speed-starved racers are finally back at Utah's world-famous Bonneville Salt Flats to hit speeds of 400 mph or more as they compete in Speed Week for the
This Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016, photo, shows the pit area at the Bonneville Salt Flats, near Wendover.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

"We know there are thousands and thousands of tourists who go out there."

Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, asked members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday to spend $5 million to leverage against a $45 million planned federal investment to save the world-famous flats.

The idea is for Utah, flats manager Bureau of Land Management, private racing industry and others to form a cooperative effort to accelerate the "salt lay-down" program by Intrepid mining, which returns the salty brine to the flats after it extracts potassium.

That program has been in effect since 1997, but Handy and others said it is overwhelmed.

Mike Swenson, representing a speciality automotive equipment industry, said the salt lay-down project can't keep up.

"We need to increase the scale of volume."

Under the accelerated schedule, the Bureau of Land Management would receive $45 million from Congress in a pass-through program administered by the state of Utah.

The private racing industry would kick in $2.5 million, as well as Intrepid contributing a portion.

University of Utah Department of Geology and Geophysics scientist Lily Wetterlin examines layers during a project to measure the thickness of the salt crust on the Bonneville Salt Flats using sonic coring on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016. The area is the remnant
University of Utah Department of Geology and Geophysics scientist Lily Wetterlin examines layers during a project to measure the thickness of the salt crust on the Bonneville Salt Flats using sonic coring on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016. The area is the remnants of an ancient lake and the site of multiple land speed records.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Swenson said a memorandum of understanding should be finalized by the end of the session.

Speed Week at the Bonneville Salt Flats was canceled for two consecutive years, and the natural track is still struggling in a decline that has played out since the 1960s.

University of Utah studies suggest that it is not only removal of the salt during the mining process that is causing harm, but other human activity as well that is hurting the salt flats.

Handy reminded lawmakers of the 2016 joint resolution on the Bonneville Salt Flats Speedway that passed out of the Utah Legislature unanimously, urging restoration of the internationally famous raceway.

"This is really about stewardship," Handy said.

Mike Nish, whose father, Terry, is in the Utah Sports Hall of Fame, said the tradition of racing needs to continue at the flats, but that is in question.

Nish, one of only 12 drivers to go more than 400 mph, said current conditions don't allow for new international records at the raceway.

"The racetrack is unsafe, it is thin and it is dangerous."