Opinion: The Great Salt Lake’s fate affects everyone in the state
We can’t sacrifice one economic driver in pursuit of another. As we look for a way to both preserve the Great Salt Lake and take advantage of the opportunities it provides us, we need to be cautious as we pursue creative solutions.
The Great Salt Lake is not only one of our state’s most iconic landmarks, it’s also one of the most important natural resources that provides thousands of direct and indirect jobs for Utahns.
The lake is an iconic tourism asset that provides countless recreation and scenic opportunities and, much like our beautiful national parks and red rock, is synonymous with our brand as a state. As the board chairman of the Utah Board of Tourism Development, I have been alarmed to see the current state of the lake and its direction. Many have correctly identified the situation as a crisis, as lake levels shrink to historic lows.
This situation obviously presents a major concern. Our public policy needs to responsibly manage our use of the lake’s resources lest we will only compound the problem, and I am glad that the Legislature and the Utah Department of Natural Resources is engaging on this issue.
At the same time, ignoring the opportunities that the lake provides is shortsighted and can stifle our economy. There are those who say we can’t have things both ways, that we must either choose between preserving the Great Salt Lake or utilizing its resources. I can’t help but be reminded that this argument is very similar to the argument regarding the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is quite literally in my backyard.
Too often in our political discussions, land and resource use is presented as an “either/or” argument. Opinions like: “You are going to destroy the land if you do _____” or “You can’t have a tourism based economy if you let ______ happen.” I feel these views are very shortsighted and unrealistic in the long term. I believe that we can be good stewards of our beautiful places and still take advantage of the various economic opportunities they offer.
In regard to the Grand Staircase, very few people who visit our beautiful red rock and slot canyons will ever realize that the biggest oil field south of Nephi is located nearly smack dab in the middle of the monument. This resource offers our area a huge economic diversification to the boom, bust and seasonality of the tourism economy.
Many of the towns in our area have taken advantage of programs like the Community Impact Fund, which is funded by oil fees, to fund necessary services like search and rescue and law enforcement to find and provide emergency services to our visitors who get lost or injured while visiting our beautiful lands. This economic dance breaks the narrative of those “either/or” land discussions and shows that the best solution can be somewhere in the middle.
No one wants smoggy inversions, and one of many long-term solutions to this is electric vehicles. We can’t pretend that electric vehicles magically don’t cause a strain on different resources, but they will help with emissions from commuters along the Wasatch Front.
One of the resources that electric vehicles require in large amounts, and is hard to ethically source, is lithium. Right now, we have a major opportunity before us where we can source lithium in our own backyard from the Great Salt Lake. Extracting lithium from the Great Salt Lake could be an incredibly advantageous economic opportunity, but preserving the lake must be the No. 1 priority. Any efforts to extract lithium that are dependent on evaporating the lake water will cause the lake’s water levels to decrease and must be avoided.
What happens to the lake affects all of us throughout the entire state, but it is keenly felt in tourism. We can’t sacrifice one economic driver in pursuit of another. That’s why I call on industry leaders to be responsible in moving forward with these efforts. As we look for a way to both preserve the Great Salt Lake and take advantage of the opportunities it provides us, we need to be cautious as we pursue creative solutions. Above all, we need to make every effort to ensure lower lake levels aren’t caused by us.
I applaud our leaders’ efforts to consider all options and make decisions that are best for Utah and the Great Salt Lake.
Lance Syrett is the chairman of the Utah Board of Tourism Development. His family has been serving visitors to Ruby’s Inn near Bryce Canyon National Park for 107 years.