Politicians join push to protect Utah's famous salt flats

Politicians join push to protect Utah's famous salt flats

Published Dec. 1, 2015 5:37 p.m. ET

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Utah's elected officials have joined the chorus of speed aficionados urging federal land managers to do more to protect the state's famous salt flats after patchy, rough salt led to a string of canceled motorsports in recent years.

Gov. Gary Herbert, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Rob Bishop, all Republicans, sent letters to the Washington-based director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in late October and early November, citing concerns about the state of the Bonneville Salt Flats and urging the agency to step up efforts to protect the area.

''The Bonneville Salt Flats are not only severely damaged but are, in fact, approaching ruin,'' Herbert wrote.

The gleaming white sheets of the salt flats sit in the desert about 10 miles west of Salt lake City. For decades, it has been the a backdrop for countless car commercials, photoshoots and films like ''Independence Day,'' and where speed junkies gather to watch cars, motorcycles and anything else with wheels reach speeds that can top 400 mph.


The flats are the remnants of the ancient Lake Bonneville, which left minerals such as potash and common table salt when it receded.

Racers have worried for decades that potash mining is draining an aquifer that helps replenish the flats each year, leaving less smooth, hard salt allowing cars to speed across a glassy surface.

The Bureau of Land Management, which manages the flats, ''remains committed to responsibly maintaining them,'' said Megan Crandall, a spokeswoman for the federal agency in Utah. ''We look forward to continued collaboration with our many partners and stakeholders to ensure the Salt Flats remain protected.''

The agency has said there's no evidence the salt is being depleted, but it still requires the mining company to pump brine onto the flats every winter with the goal of thickening the salt crust.

Instead, the agency points to heavy rains as the culprit of the wet, patchy surfaces that have caused nine major races to be canceled or cut short since 2014.

The largest event, the annual Speed Week Race in late summer, draws hundreds of teams from around the world but has been scuttled two years in a row.

The racing community is now ramping up the pressure on federal land managers, saying that sweeping, immediate steps are needed. They're working to present a plan to the Bureau of Land Management in the next week or so that spells out what steps they'd like to see.

Chief among those is a request that at least 1 million tons of brine be pumped back each year onto the flats each year, up from about 300,000 tons annually, said Dennis Sullivan, president of the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association.

Louise Ann Noeth, a spokeswoman for the Save the Salt Coalition and Utah Alliance, two groups made up of longtime racers at Bonneville, said local Bureau of Land Management officials and the mining company are talking with them. But she said the groups feel they need to put pressure on land managers in Washington to see any real action.

Parts of the salty crust used are measured in inches where it used to be measured in feet, Noeth said.

''There's kids that are not even born yet that won't get a chance to see Bonneville if this isn't fixed,'' she said. ''It is on critical life support.''