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Utah legislators to Bureau of Land Management: Restore the Bonneville Salt Flats

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Photo by loonyhiker.

After months of meetings with land-speed racers, mining companies, and federal agencies, the Utah House of Representatives late last week passed a bill urging the Bureau of Land Management to make it safe once again to race on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Introduced at the beginning of the month by Utah State Representative Stephen G. Handy, Utah House Concurrent Resolution 8 points out that racers noted a thinning of the salt flats as early as the 1960s and that the flats were designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern in 1985 before “strongly urging” the BLM, the United States Congress, and the state’s congressional representatives to come up with a plan to restore the salt flats “to safe land speed racing conditions.”

“It’s a real tragedy, what’s happened there,” Handy told the Salt Lake Tribune. “There are things that we cannot do that we would like to do with those lands within our sovereign borders that we cannot effect.”

Last September, after the cancellation of Bonneville’s Speed Week for the second time in as many years, Utah Governor Gary Herbert wrote a similarly worded letter to the Bureau of Land Management, noting that despite the agency’s responsibility for the landmark, “the Bonneville Salt Flats are not only severely damaged but are, in fact, approaching ruin.”

While neither the House bill nor the governor’s letter pinpointed a specific cause for the deteriorating salt conditions and heavy rains contributed to the back-to-back cancellations, the Bonneville racing community has long blamed the BLM and nearby mining company Intrepid Potash, which leases part of the Bonneville Salt Flats from the BLM for its operations, as the cause of the thinning salt and of the declining salinity in Bonneville’s underground aquifers.

“We need to make sure the Bureau of Land Management acknowledges the tons of salt that have been removed from the salt flats,” said Stuart Gosswein of the Save the Salt Coalition. “We need a reclamation plan in place, and they’d be the ones to approve it.”

Lisa Reid, a BLM spokesperson, said that the BLM “wants to be responsive” on the issue, but that it would not be appropriate for the agency to comment on pending legislation. The BLM last year committed to a study of the shrinking and thinning of the salt flats, though as the Utah Alliance pointed out in a press release, previous studies of the salt depletion have come to widely varying conclusions about the source and extent of the depletion.


Photo by Steven Harris.

Previously proposed solutions include restarting the salt replenishment program on the existing land-speed track, shifting the land-speed track to BLM property south of Interstate 80, and the transfer of ownership of the track from the federal government to the state of Utah. The latter would be possible under the Recreation and Public Purposes Act, which allows states to purchase up to 6,400 acres of BLM-supervised public land per year for recreation purposes.

HCR 8, which passed the Utah House of Representatives 71-1 on Monday, has since been sent to the Utah Senate for consideration.