January 06, 2020

A better vision for the northwest quadrant

|||| |||| ||||

by Søren D. Simonsen

Like many in our community, I was alarmed by a September report in National Geographic Magazine, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News about a massive decline in North American bird populations, with some calling it a “crisis.”

A scientific report published in October 2019 in the highly regarded academic journal, “Science,” indicates that total wild bird population has decreased by 3 billion, or 29 percent, since 1970. The birds most impacted are grassland species, which have declined by over half, and shore bird species, which have declined by one third. Top reasons cited for the declining populations are loss of food source, primarily insects, and loss of habitat.

 Natural Hazards map EDITSNatural Hazards Map and description (p, 10) from the Northwest Quadrant Master Plan, which highlights the extensive wetlands, and extreme seismic risk for building in the undeveloped portions of the Northwest Quadrant

Utah’s Inland Port, a massive proposal to extend industrial development into some of the most sensitive wildlife habitat areas in Utah along the south shore of the Great Salt Lake, will be devastating for the very reasons cited in the bird population report – loss of wetland and upland habitat, and decimation of insect populations.

The extensive shoreline wetlands and uplands are a breeding ground for billions of bugs, and mosquito and insect abatement is already being carried out in earnest as development in this sensitive area plows forward.

The loss of this primary food source to the millions of birds that feed in this area will be further exacerbated as upland grasslands are covered by sprawling rooftops and pavement.

The implications are global in their impact, as this ecosystem sustains one of the largest migratory routes for birds in the Western Hemisphere. These wetlands and uplands provide a resting and nesting area for hundreds of species and millions of birds each year, along with other permanent bird species such as raptors and songbirds, as well as mammals, amphibians and reptiles.

In 1928, just over 90 years ago, 80,000 acres were preserved for the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge at the northern region of the Great Salt Lake. Today, we must set our sights on a preserve of this magnitude for the other major Great Salt Lake tributary – the Jordan River.

This area of the Inland Port was long ago the Jordan River delta. And even though the present day Jordan River channel has meandered east due to the slow geomorphology of the region, at least 50 percent of the Jordan River, and much more during peak runoff, flows through the Inland Port area via the Surplus Canal. It’s all a connected web of life.

While we, as a region, are collectively working to preserve every acre and scrap of open space along the Jordan River to restore natural river functions and habitat, these efforts pale when compared to the loss of thousands and thousands of acres of prime habitat at the south shore of the Great Salt Lake now exposed to development.

Building green is not enough. Sustainable building begins with the premise, like the hippocratic oath of physicians, to “first, do no harm.”

We know factually that this is not an ideal place to build. The high water table, extreme seismic liquefaction risk, and a host of other environmental factors beyond the wildlife impact make it among the poorest quality and most expensive places to build in Utah. This is confirmed by the ongoing, extraordinary cost escalations of the State Prison now under construction.

It is, however, an ideal place to construct (conserve, restore, remediate) homes and habitat for wildlife.

Our community values and vision for the environment and conservation are clearly articulated in city plans such as Plan Salt Lake that encourage our collective efforts to “expand natural lands and watershed protection acreage…[promote] best practices in stewardship of natural lands, and…[reduce] habitat fragmentation.” The realization of this vision will be challenging, but it has never been more important. 

Some will argue that current entitlement of private land for development precludes its preservation. This argument simply acknowledges a lack of imagination, innovation and resolve. We have seen large scale preservation of entitled land of this magnitude at the Swaner Preserve in Summit County, for example.

Specific tools such as transfer and acquisition of development rights, conservation easements, and others are used routinely in forward-thinking communities across the U.S. We need these tools in our sensitive land preservation tool box, and we need to use them.

If we are serious about issues like sustainability and resiliency, wildlife and habitat preservation, fiscal responsibility, reducing our environmental impact, and responding to the climate crisis, then we must explore every option to NOT build on the remaining undeveloped land north of I-80 and west of 5600 West.

Business as usual is both unrealistic and unacceptable in the twenty-first century.

This special place is not just about the birds. It is about our own future, and the world we want to leave behind. We must set our sights on the highest and best we can accomplish.

Søren Simonsen is Executive Director of the Jordan River Commission. He has worked to create livable communities and resilient places in Utah and the West for over 30 years.