The Antelope Island Causeway is a window into the declining health of the Great Salt Lake.

Shrubs have now overtaken areas that years ago were underwater. Coyotes and mule deer roam the mudflats where thousands of birds used to nest.

A little farther and you’ll see one of the sorriest marinas in Utah. Stuck in perpetual low tide, the floatable docks of the Antelope Island Marina have been resting on the muddy lakebed for several months.

It’s also hard to miss the massive pipeline being installed toward the end of the causeway.

The outfall for the North Davis County Sewer District is located near the entrance to the causeway. At one point, the treated sewage was dumped into the lake — but the water hasn’t been that high in years, and the outfall has caused the proliferation of phragmites, an invasive reed. So the sewer district is permanently moving the outfall to the north end of Antelope Island.

The water that couldn’t save
Great Salt Lake’s Fremont Island, once destined for massive housing project, to be preserved

It’s no small project, either. Records show the price tag is over $15 million. But apparently, it’s worth it. They know the lake will never return.

People who have spent years on the lake will notice something else — the smell, or lack thereof.

“You used to drive across the causeway to Antelope Island, and you would get that horrible smell — it smelled like something decaying, which people don’t realize is a sign that the lake is living and breathing. It’s basically a sign that the lake is healthy, it’s doing alright. And in recent times, you drive along the causeway and it’s not as pungent,” said Marisa Weinberg. “Which is sad.”

It was near the sewer district’s project that Weinberg, a minerals and surface lease analyst for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, and Jason Curry, the deputy director of the division, lifted their electric mountain bikes out of a state-issued Chevy Colorado, walked them down off of the causeway to the lake bed, and pedaled north on a sandbar toward Fremont Island.

Normally they would take a boat.

“That says it all,” Weinberg told the Deseret News.

Marisa Weinberg, minerals and surface lease analyst for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, and Jason Curry, the division’s deputy director, ride e-bikes across a sandbar to Fremont Island on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

From private to public ownership

Once eyed by developers as the potential site of a massive, 15,000 home development, Fremont Island was handed over to the state in December 2020 after the Nature Conservancy worked with an anonymous buyer to purchase the desolate, scraggly 3,000 acre island.

Fremont is now subject to a conservation easement, established by the Nature Conservancy and enforced by the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands — certain things like camping, hunting and shooting, fires and motorized recreation will never be allowed. Development, mining, dumping and other industry use is also permanently barred.

Fremont Island in the Great Salt Lake now belongs to the state of Utah

But the public is more than welcome to explore the island, which has largely been excluded from outside use for decades. You just might have to make the 6-mile bike ride across the sandbar, like Curry and Weinberg did on a clear and crisp October morning.

“Every person that I’ve taken out to Antelope Island or up to Spiral Jetty has the same reaction — ‘I can’t believe this is in my backyard,’” said Weinberg. “If you close your eyes and sit here for a second, you can transport to the ocean.”

Or another planet. Biking out across the lake bed is an eery, otherworldly experience. You can sometimes hear the rumble of a faraway semitrailer, but the most common noise comes from the thousands of grebes sitting on the lake’s edge. Sometimes a private plane hums overhead, like the small, yellow craft that touched down on the airstrip as Weinberg and Curry parked their bikes on the banks of Fremont Island.

In a city surrounded by splendor — the stunning Wasatch and Uinta Mountains to the east and sprawling red desert to the south — it’s oddly easy to forget about Salt Lake City’s namesake just a few miles to the west.

Environmental advocates and state employees are trying to fight that stigma. “Just because it smells and looks kind of funky, doesn't mean it’s not something we can’t love, and appreciate, and recreate on. I think exposure is really the most important part,” said Weinberg, who as a graduate student at Utah State University is writing the island’s management plan for the division as a capstone project.

“When I tell people I’m doing my capstone on an island, usually their eyes get really big.” she said.

How to balance recreation with wildlife, controlling invasive species and managing and protecting the island’s resources and history will all be detailed in the plan, which Weinberg hopes will be completed by the end of 2022.

A few things are certain. The two rough, backcountry airstrips will be maintained. The Department of Wildlife Resources will work to help quell phragmites and skeleton rush weed, invasive plants that grow sporadically on the island. And other than that, Fremont will remain relatively untouched.

There will never be a causeway built, and motor vehicles are not allowed on the lake bed. The state has no plans for trails — they might build a picnic table or shade structure, someday.

“I think there’s still a lot of question marks as to what the future will look like. But it won’t look like Antelope Island, I can tell you that,” Weinberg said.

The division monitors use, with cameras set up around the island. Officials from Antelope Island also try to track how many people bike out on the sandbar.

The details of the management plan hinge on how much recreation the island sees. And right now, it doesn’t see much. In recent weeks, only six people passed by one of the cameras, set up in one of Fremont’s more highly trafficked areas.

“With that few of people visiting, the need for infrastructure improvements, things like that, is going to be way far out there. At this pace, it’s not likely to even be on the radar,” said Curry.

Weinberg echoed Curry, telling the Deseret News that “the unprecedented surge in state park and public land visitation during the pandemic, that didn’t happen here.”

Kit Carson’s cross on Fremont Island is pictured on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. The cross was carved into the rock in 1843 by Kit Carson, who explored the area with the island’s namesake, John C. Fremont. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A colorful history

Believe it or not, Christian explorers beat the Latter-day Saints to the Salt Lake Valley. The proof lies in a still visible cross etched by famed Western explorer and Native American agent Kit Carson, into a peculiar rocky perch high on the island.

Early shipwrecks on the briny and unpredictable Great Salt Lake

In 1843, Carson and John C. Fremont were the first explorers of European descent to see the lake, although they were hardly as excited as Brigham Young and the pioneers who would declare “this is the place” upon their arrival four years later.

Fremont was expecting to find an exotic paradise. Instead, he found little grass, no trees, water or game. He dubbed it “disappointment island.”

There was undoubtedly an Indigenous presence on the island before 1843. “As a Native American, seeing this island? There’s no way that people weren't here,” Curry said, standing near the cross, looking back at the Wasatch Front.

An archeology crew inspected the island over the summer and found a “significant amount of cultural artifacts,” Weinberg said. The artifacts’ locations on “disappointment island” won’t be disclosed.

That name didn’t stick, and seven years after Carson carved his cross, Capt. Howard Stansbury renamed it Fremont Island during his survey of the Great Salt Lake.

Roughly a decade later, Salt Lake City Cemetery grave digger Jean Baptiste was banished to the island after he was accused of taking clothing and jewelry from the dead before closing their caskets. When authorities went to check on Baptiste about six months later, he was gone.

They think he may have built a raft and floated to shore, but no one really knows. Maybe he’s still on Fremont Island.

In the 1880s, Salt Lake judge Uriah J. Wenner bought the island from the Central Pacific Railroad and moved there with his family, in hopes that the salty air would quell his tuberculosis. Wenner died and was buried on the island five years later, and his widow, Kate, moved to Seattle and remarried. When she died in 1942, her ashes were buried alongside her husband’s on Fremont Island.

Their gravesite is still visible, protected by a wire fence on the south end of the island.

A grave marker for Uriah J. Wenner and his wife, Kate Wenner Noble, is pictured on Fremont Island on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The island was sold to the Richards family, and eventually leased it to Justin Barrow, who had lofty plans for Fremont, and brought cattle, sheep, even wild boars for hunting. The Barrows were later evicted in 2011, though many of the animals illegally brought to the island remained and were killed by the state. Legend has it, one boar remains.

Barrow’s cabin on the south end is the only standing structure on the island, aside from a nearby water tank. It’s weathered, but in phenomenally good shape considering the other abandoned cabins in rural Utah, shot to pieces and looted of anything significant. Pots, pans and other cookware hang on the exterior. A pile of trash sits outside — an antique TV, six lawn chairs, a car battery and an empty wine bottle.

Unused 12 gauge and .22 caliber ammunition line the inside of the cabin, which is still home to at least one resident.

“And there’s my first snake I’ve seen on the island,” Curry said, excitedly pointing to a bullsnake coiled around the stovepipe, then gently picking it up in admiration before handing it over to Weinberg.

Marisa Weinberg, a minerals and surface lease analyst for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, checks out a gopher snake found in an old cabin on Fremont Island while giving journalists a tour on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

In 2018, the Richards family sold the island to G&G Island LLC, a company affiliated with David “Heavy D” Sparks, star of Discovery Channel’s “Diesel Brothers.”

The owners were granted an easement to travel to and from the island by vehicle. Tracks on the sandbar stick around — Curry said the small imprints left from his electric bike that day might be visible for a year or two. And the mass exodus of machinery from Sparks’ crew is still evident, presumably from their “freedom bus,” a school bus-turned-monster truck that left behind massive tire tracks on the sandbar.

‘That’s what makes this unique’

The acquisition of Fremont Island is a one-of-a-kind conservation success story — an island, on a shriveling lake essential for the health of a major city, once slated for development, now preserved forever.

It’s similar to the Range Creek Ranch in Utah’s Book Cliffs region. Cut off from the outside world, the ranch was home to a maze of artifacts left by the Fremont Indians. In 2001, owner Waldo Wilcox sold the ranch to a land trust, and it was eventually handed over to the state.

The ruins and artifacts were in such pristine condition that one state archeologist told Smithsonian Magazine it was like “finding a Van Gogh in your grandmother’s attic.”

Similar to Range Creek and unlike vast swaths of public land in the West, the state got to Fremont before industry left its footprint. Sure, the Diesel Brothers drove their jacked-up school bus around. And there was a brief wild boar problem. But in a lake surrounded by industry — including a military base, landfill and U.S. Magnesium plant to the west, Morton Salt to the south, brine shrimp harvesting to the north, a railroad causeway right through the middle and a crowded state park just 6 miles away — it feels like Fremont Island has been stuck in time.

Some 20 miles to the south is Stansbury Island. Large tracks of that island are privately owned, and what’s not is under the Bureau of Land Management’s control. Piles of trash dot the island, some of it dumped illegally, some of it riddled with bullet holes, and some of it probably riddled with bullet holes from the same people who were illegally dumping it.

The Morton Salt facility sits just before the causeway, which sees a constant stream of semitrailers. “Private Property” signs aren’t hard to find.

The Bleazard family owns a significant portion of Stansbury. “They could enter into an agreement with the state for a conservation easement ... and then that way they know that it will be conserved and preserved in perpetuity and not get that big development,” Curry hypothesized.

But even with an easement, the trash, roads, campfire rings, well-trafficked trails and other markings of industry and recreation will likely mar Stansbury Island for a long, long time.

With the exception of the cabin, water tank, gravesite, sporadic wire fencing, an abandoned sailboat and the faint makings of a road that doubles as an airstrip, Fremont Island feels like a far cry from its neighbor to the south.

“That’s what makes this unique, are the access barriers,” Curry said.

Now that it’s public, both Curry and Weinberg admit they have some concerns about the island’s future. For one, Fremont was handed over to the state around the same time the infamous Utah monolith made headlines.

“I thought someone was going to put a monolith out here,” Curry said.

The Kit Carson cross, gravesite and cabin could become targets of vandalism. Every once in a while, someone either in ignorance or defiance of the law decides to drive out on the lake bed. And history shows that even the most stringent of restrictions can’t stop illegal target shooting and campfires.

But again, a muddy, mileslong moat puts Fremont at an advantage.

“I think the people that are more inclined to come out here with a can of spray paint are not going to want to bike 6 miles on a sandbar,” said Weinberg.

Fremont is a win for conservationists. But like the lake it sits on, it’s incredibly unique. “I can’t see this situation being possible in too many other areas,” said Curry.

Both Curry and Weinberg want to see Utahns get outside and explore their new, breathtakingly beautiful public lands. They ask that whoever decides to make the trek abides by the few, painfully easy to follow rules. And be warned — the mosquitos in the summer are ruthless.

Above all else, whoever decides to venture out to Fremont Island will get an eye-opening look at the shrinking Great Salt Lake. The grim window into the West’s historic drought is enough to kill off any apathy. “I think even just coming out here to see the lake can help change minds,” Weinberg said.

“A lot of the islands on the Great Salt Lake aren’t really islands anymore.”

Correction: A previous version misspelled the last name of Marisa Weinberg, minerals and surface lease analyst for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, in one instance as Weirnberg.