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FIA joins effort to demand restoration of the Bonneville Salt Flats

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Photo by Tom Kelly.

As racers and supporters of land-speed racing at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats prepare to go to Congress with demands for the restoration of the racing venue, the international racing organization that oversees land-speed records has thrown its support behind those demands.

In a letter to the Bureau of Land Management sent earlier this month, Dennis Dean, president of the Land Speed Records Commission for the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile urged the BLM “to take immediate and dramatic remedial actions to not only ensure the Bonneville Salt Flats do not deteriorate further, but more appropriately, are set on a course to restore them to the pristine condition they were in when originally placed in the Bureau’s care.”

Dean noted that the salt flats – recognized internationally as a place of great importance to the racing community – have been designated as both an Area of Critical Environmental Concern and a Special Recreation Management Area but that the Bureau has appeared to ignore and perhaps has encouraged the ongoing shrinking of the salt flats.

“There is more than 50 years of history that leads one to believe that the Bureau’s lack of action has been a direct enabler of the continued deterioration of this international treasure to the point where it may be irreversibly damaged,” he wrote. “We sincerely hope that is not the case.”

Bonneville racers similarly accused the BLM of dragging its feet in regards to forming an action plan to address the shrinking salt last year. Their comments came after a summit in Salt Lake City that elicited agreement from BLM officials on the scope and importance of the issue but no promise to remedy the situation beyond the commissioning of a study into the causes of the salt shrinkage.

Like the racers involved in the Save the Salt coalition, Dean said in a telephone interview that he believes the best course of action is to return the salt currently on the south side of Interstate 80 – deposited there as a byproduct of industrial potash production taking place on lands leased from the BLM – back to the north side, where the speedway lies.

“They’ve made some efforts toward that in the past, but at the end of the day if they’re going to reverse what’s going on there, they need to be more aggressive in adding material back to the salt,” he said. “If they let the salt flats continue to deteriorate, then aside from losing a natural resource and a national treasure, they’ll also lose the racers to places like Hakskeenpan in South Africa, where the Bloodhound team plans to run. It would be a shame to lose the tradition of Bonneville simply because we weren’t tuned to these environmental impacts.”

Established in 1904 and headquartered in Paris, the FIA oversees land-speed record attempts (except those contested by motorcycles) around the world and, as Dean put it, is “quite familiar with the venues used for those attempts.”

Dean said he has yet to receive a response from the BLM, though after seeing the Utah state legislature call on the BLM to restore the salt flats last year, he said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the BLM will at least respond generally to the restoration pleas.

BLM officials have yet to respond to a request for comment on the letter.

Meanwhile, Save the Salt officials have prepared legislation due to be introduced later this year that would provide federal funding for such restoration efforts. To represent their interests, Save the Salt – with financial support from SEMA – has hired lobbyist Michael Swenson, who told the Salt Lake Tribune that he’s already been in touch with officials in Washington, D.C.

For his part, Dean said that he’s not sure legislation will force the BLM to act. “I think what will work is putting public pressure on the BLM and being the squeaky wheel when working with the entities involved.”

While the annual Speedweek – along with several other racing events – returned to Bonneville last August, racing there was canceled the prior two years due to flooding and poor salt conditions, leading racers to start looking for solutions to the diminishing salt situation.

A University of Utah study of the flats, which is expected to provide data that could answer that question and which the BLM wants to review before determining how to fix Bonneville, isn’t expected until 2018.