Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve

Posted: Jul 1, 2005
Written by: 
Brendan Smith

The 4,026-acre preserve is located in Utah on the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake, north of Salt Lake City between the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area and the Antelope Island State Park causeway

Objective: The preserve protects and restores local wetlands that provide crucial habitat for millions of migrating and resident birds. The preserve also educates visitors about the importance of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.

Participants: The Nature Conservancy, Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission, Envision Utah, Great Salt Lake Alliance, Friends of Great Salt Lake, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Department of Natural Resources, Ducks Unlimited, Davis County Council of Governments, Davis County Wetlands Advisory Committee, Eastern Shoreline farming community, National Audubon Society, Kennecott Utah Copper and Intermountain West Joint Venture

History: Covering up to 2,500 square miles, depending on rain and snowfall patterns, the Great Salt Lake is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere. It is a remnant of prehistoric Lake Bonneville, which covered 20,000 square miles across the Great Basin in Utah, Nevada, and Idaho more than 15,000 years ago. Once dismissed as a dead, expanse of shallow, stinking saltwater, useful only as a dumping ground for sewage, agricultural runoff, and other waste, the lake is now more widely appreciated for its ecological importance. According to the conservation organization Ducks Unlimited, the lake is the "Bird Crossroads of the Intermountain West …serving as a hub for migratory birds in both the Pacific and Central Flyways." As many as six million migratory birds representing more than 200 species rest and feed on the lake each year. More than 50 species nest on its shores and wetlands. It is one of only 17 sites of Hemispheric Importance making up the Western Hemisphere Shorebirds Reserve Network.

Pelicans at the preserve
Photo by Gary Crandall
Close to two million people now live in the Great Salt Lake Basin, with thousands more arriving each year. Outlying communities have merged into the rapidly expanding Salt Lake City metro area. Constrained by the Wasatch Mountains to the east and the lake to the west, development increasingly threatens the wetlands along the eastern lakeshore. In addition, much of the water that formerly nourished the wetlands surrounding the lake is diverted for agricultural use, both reducing the flow of water through the system and adding pollutants from runoff.

In 1984, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) created the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve, previously called the Layton Wetlands Preserve, by purchasing 1,200 acres west of the town of Layton from the Morton-Thiokol Corporation. The preserve, TNC's first in Utah, has since grown to encompass 4,026 acres and almost 11 miles of shoreline. TNC and its partners purchased 33 additional tracts of land using approximately $15 million in public and private funding. Since 1994, the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission has spent an additional $9.5 million in federal funds to purchase 1,844 acres around Great Salt Lake, including 868 acres within the preserve. The commission designs and implements mitigation projects to offset impacts from regional water systems under the Central Utah Project. "The Nature Conservancy people here are fantastic. They really are talented professionals. It was a no-brainer for us when we got here," says Michael Weland, the commission's executive director, in speaking about the partnership.

Accomplishments: In July 2004, Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve opened its new visitor center, featuring a mile-long boardwalk loop through the marsh with educational exhibits on wetlands and wildlife. A 30-foot observation tower offers a bird's-eye view, and an open-air pavilion provides a meeting space for group tours led by volunteer naturalists. Volunteers also monitor and help maintain the center, which is not staffed. Approximately 300 people visit the preserve each week, says preserve manager Chris Brown. Except for bird watchers and duck hunters, many local residents have never seen the wetlands surrounding Great Salt Lake or the birds that abound there. "Many people thought it was just a dead lake," Brown says. "I think this visitor center has really opened people's eyes and given them the opportunity to access the lake and see what's out there." Brown grew up in the area and hunted ducks along the shoreline as a boy. "I always loved the marsh and the lake, and I always thought it was very important," he says. "The preserve could be a model for wetland management along the lake."

The preserve helps educate people about "one of the very special ecosystems we have in Utah," says Lynn de Freitas, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Great Salt Lake. "We want people to understand the Great Salt Lake, because if they understand it they are more willing to speak out for its conservation and protection." TNC is developing an educational curriculum for 4th grade classes in Davis County, including in-class instruction on the wetlands and field trips to the preserve. A pilot test of the curriculum will begin this fall. Friends of Great Salt Lake is developing a companion 4th grade curriculum about environmental issues across the Great Salt Lake.

The visitor center covers only five of the 4,026 acres within the preserve, so most work on the ground occurs outside the public eye. In partnership with Ducks Unlimited, TNC recently completed a $375,000 restoration project on the final mile of Kay's Creek, a tributary feeding the preserve and more than 10,000 acres of wetlands. The project was funded by a federal North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant and grants from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation and the Orvis Company. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged and channelized the creek decades ago to prevent flooding and protect adjacent agricultural land. The project has restored meanders to the creek, widened the floodplain, created new wetlands by using natural depressions in adjoining meadows, and established new riparian vegetation. TNC currently is seeking a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to restore approximately 1,000 additional acres of wetlands. The project will involve construction of earthen berms and a system to deliver water from artesian wells and irrigation canals. "We can restore a lot of acres with little effort and not a lot of money," Brown says.

 A mile-long boardwalk through the marsh leads to a 30-foot observation tower.
Photo by Robert Johnson
TNC owns most of the land within the preserve and has purchased conservation easements on some adjoining properties. Four years ago, farmer Charlie Black sold a conservation easement to TNC on 40 shorefront acres two miles northwest of the preserve visitor center. Black still farms vegetables on the land, which is permanently protected from development under the easement. Black says he wasn't a conservationist when he sold the easement, but he is now a TNC member who appreciates TNC's mission. "They don't engage in lawsuits and try to stop things. They buy property to protect it," Black says. "I really support their premise of a willing buyer and a willing seller."

To rectify the Great Salt Lake's history as a dumping ground, TNC and Friends of Great Salt Lake are serving on a steering committee of government, environmental, and recreational organizations, led by the Utah Division of Water Quality, which is developing numeric water quality standards for the lake. A science panel has begun to analyze selenium contamination levels.

Challenges/constraints: Development surrounding Salt Lake City keeps edging closer to the preserve, driving up land and water prices. A subdivision abuts the preserve on its eastern border in Kaysville, separated only by a fence and a "No Trespassing" sign. TNC still hopes to buy approximately 500 acres of private inholdings remaining within the preserve and expects to close on a 180-acre parcel this summer. "We'd hate to see them sold and see a subdivision in the middle of the preserve," Brown says. "Prices have gone up on land so fast. Subdivisions are encroaching, and we can't buy everything, but these parcels of land are probably the most critical."

Wetlands can't exist without water, another commodity with a growing price tag. The preserve holds some irrigation water rights and still needs more, but a water share from a canal company for an acre-foot of water now costs almost $100,000, Brown says. Water pollution is another cost of nearby development, with storm water and agricultural runoff carrying oil, pesticides, and other wastes into the wetlands. The preserve is the "lowest piece of ground on the whole east side of the Great Salt Lake," with storm water runoff sometimes flooding the preserve and inundating the nests of shorebirds, Brown says. TNC is working with local cities and Davis County to create retention basins with skimmers to clean storm water runoff before slowly releasing it into the wetlands. TNC also wants to create additional wetlands as storage for storm water runoff in order to regulate flows into the preserve.

All of the threats to the preserve aren't man-made. Invasive species are an increasing problem. Raccoons and red-tailed foxes, which are not native to the region, can devastate colonies of nesting shorebirds. Phragmites, an aggressive reed, has sprouted up in wetlands across Great Salt Lake, squeezing out native plant species that provide food and habitat for wildlife.

For more information see:

The Nature Conservancy's page on the preserve

Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission

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