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Opinion: Making the Great Salt Lake into a national park

The Great Salt Lake is a cultural and historical landmark of Utah. Giving it national park status will repair our relationship with this natural wonder

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People walk on the beach of the Great Salt Lake in Salt Lake City on March 17, 2023.

People walk on the beach of the Great Salt Lake in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 17, 2023. Is making the Great Salt Lake into a national park a good idea?

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

I once asked a friend from Switzerland what was the most impressive thing he had seen in the United States. He responded, “the Bonneville Salt Flats.” I was surprised. How could someone from the Alps find the Salt Flats to be so remarkable?

Later in life I spent time with my daughter Hillary in her master’s degree studies of the lake. The waters along the railway trestle — red on the north and bluish gray on the south — have a color difference observable from space. Red cyanobacteria on the north can thrive in the most saline waters known on our planet. On the south, other microbial species provide food for brine shrimp. Their eggs are annually harvested by boats for aquaria enthusiasts. Brine shrimp also provide sustenance for 10 million migratory wildfowl during their annual journey from Canada to South America. Twenty thousand pelicans nest on Gunnison Island. There is a monument on Temple Square commemorating the story of the seagulls saving the pioneers from famine by consuming crickets threatening their crops. 

Indigenous people also believed the lake protected them. Petroglyphs and archeological sites — some a stone’s throw from the Salt Lake City airport — evidence centuries of native American use. Footprints on the west side date to 13,000 years ago. 

The first western explorers were astonished by the lake. John C. Fremont built a raft to explore it. Today, a buffalo herd lives on Antelope Island, some in the shade of mulberry trees planted by Brigham Young for the nascent pioneer silkworm industry. In modern times, famed artist Robert Smithson chose the north shore to construct the Spiral Jetty, one of the most revered monumental sculptures in the world. Nearby is where the golden spike was driven to connect the first intercontinental railway. On the southwest side, Craig Breedlove broke multiple land speed records in his jet-powered car “Spirit of America.” And to the east, skiers delight in “The Greatest Snow on Earth” produced by what meteorologists term “the lake effect.”

When I first began teaching at BYU in 1983, the Great Salt Lake surface occupied 3,300 square miles, making it the largest saline lake in the entire Western Hemisphere. Forty years later, the lake area has been reduced by 71%. Over the last 12 months, my colleagues and I at the Brain Chemistry Labs analyzed air samples above the uncovered lakeshore, collecting them with a device that mimics inhalation by the human lung. We were alarmed to discover that the dust blowing toward Salt Lake City and Ogden is contaminated not only with heavy metals, but with cyanobacterial toxins, including one which can trigger ALS in susceptible people.

At a forum address at BYU last October, I suggested to the students, “Perhaps together we could create a national park at the Great Salt Lake. There are more than enough natural, archeological and historical treasures present to qualify the area for National Park status.” 

Students and faculty members took me up on my challenge. Today we have been together in Washington, D.C., to present their plan to our national leaders. The Great Salt Lake National Park could play an important role in interpreting the cultural history and natural grandeur of the Great Salt Lake, bringing in millions of visitors, and benefitting Utah’s economy. Existing uses of the lake could be grandfathered, and the needs of all stake holders incorporated into the enabling legislation.

Careful Qualtrics polling by the students finds that 67% of Utah residents would support establishment of a park, the sixth national park in Utah. This effort by BYU students to transform the lake from an ongoing health hazard to a marvelous treasure chest is laudable and worthy of broad support. A national park by itself will not fix water issues, but will help repair our relationship with this natural wonder.

Paul Alan Cox won the Goldman Environmental Prize, sometimes known as the Nobel Prize of the Environment, for his partnership with Samoan villagers to protect their island rainforests, including the establishment of the 50th national park of the United States in American Samoa.