With two wet winters in a row, the Great Salt Lake is no longer at the top of Utahns’ concerns. However, the lake remains well below a healthy level, and last week, a group of scientists and environmentalists filed a petition asking for federal help with one of the lake’s tiny but mighty athletes. If the petition prevails, the Wilson’s phalarope could be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The phalarope only weighs as much as three AA batteries, but it flies nonstop from the Great Salt Lake to similar lakes in South America. It is one of the 230 migratory bird species that depend on the Great Salt Lake. Its population has dropped by 70% since the 1980s due to habitat loss across North and South America. The petition for listing could be a step toward saving the phalarope and the ecosystem it relies on, but the move is understandably controversial.

Two extreme but incomplete narratives have emerged about the petition. One interpretation insists that this is an attack on Utah’s sovereignty. Another view concludes that the state must be asleep at the switch regarding the Great Salt Lake. I don’t think that either of these views reflect what is happening. This petition represents a crossroads. What happens next depends almost completely on what we as Utahns choose.

Many state leaders have pointed out that saving the Great Salt Lake will take billions of dollars and substantial federal support. Much of the money already invested in monitoring water and improving agricultural practices has been federal. As Patrick Donnelly of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a discussion panel this week, “It wouldn’t be fair for Utah taxpayers to bear the entire burden of the lake rescue.”

Because the phalarope is found in all 50 states, this petition begins a process that focuses national attention and resources on what can only be described as a national issue: mounting the first effective restoration anywhere in the world on a large saline lake.

If we choose to view the potential listing as an opportunity for collaboration with the Fish and Wildlife Service and other states, this could solve several sticky issues facing Utah. For example, about a third of the water use in the watershed occurs in Idaho and Wyoming, but we haven’t figured out how to bring those states to the table. Sharing water across state lines and conserving in every region of the watershed are crucial. The process of considering the petition will instigate a multistate planning process that can bring greater coordination to our race to restore the Great Salt Lake.

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Utah will have a leadership role in this process. As University of Utah law professors Brigham Daniels and Beth Parker wrote, “The state will have opportunities to show that it is committed to conserving the species that rely on the Great Salt Lake, and that it has a viable plan to do so.”

“I’ve heard some say that this petition is an example of federal overreach — an example of government gone wrong,” said Ben Abbott, one of the scientists who wrote the petition, at a recent rally. “But the only way we lose our sovereignty as a state is if we give it away by denying that there is a problem.”

Abbott also cautioned those who say that “the state isn’t even trying” to save the lake or the species that rely on it. “This is also not true,” Abbott said, adding that we have come light years but also have light years to go.

In February, Utah earmarked $2 million to deal with endangered species petitions. Rather than using the money to fight the petition, I hope the funds are used to pursue a collaborative outcome by providing the Fish and Wildlife Service with a viable plan detailing how the state will help the phalarope and its habitat. The Fish and Wildlife Service actively solicits this kind of collaboration.

If the lake’s ecosystem does not recover, Utah will likely see many more petitions to list species reliant on the Great Salt Lake. These species are proverbial canaries in the coal mine. If we don’t heed the message they are sending us, we will suffer damage to our health, economy and global reputation. The decline of the phalarope is the direct result of a much larger problem: the collapse of an entire ecosystem. At this critical crossroads, let’s not get caught up in fighting the petition. Let’s save the ecosystem.

Addison Graham is a senior at Brigham Young University and the government relations director for Grow the Flow.