At first, we heard it was a “social issue” and that the Inland Port Board Authority wanted nothing to do with its ecological impacts. For decades, Salt Lake City has attempted many planning efforts for filling their last major open space, which happens to be adjacent to the wetlands of Great Salt Lake. These wetlands—which include Audubon’s Gillmor Sanctuary—are critical to the millions of shorebirds and other waterbirds that use them. The conservation community came to the table when the inland port first arose, but it was excluded from the final decision to develop it. This port will be a massive distribution hub operating around the clock. Through the years, Audubon and other groups have raised awareness for the need to protect an appropriate buffer around Great Salt Lake’s wetlands, but we feared our concerns were falling on deaf ears. That is, until two recent wins for birds and their wetlands.
Last year as the Utah Legislature was hastily signing into law the inland port and forming an Inland Port Board Authority, they were handed an editorial written by Ella Sorensen, Gillmor Sanctuary manager. The editoral called for them to honor the non-developable “Natural Area” zone identified in the Salt Lake City Master Plan zoning overlay. The legislature heeded the request and wrote the Natural Area as zoned by Salt Lake City into the law, nearly exactly as Sorensen described in her editorial.
Then on April 24th, 2019, protestors chanting “abort the port” shut down a public Inland Port Board Authority meeting where, coincidentally, Sorensen had been invited to speak about the importance of the Natural Area buffer and the need to protect it in perpetuity. While this disruption was viewed by the media and public as an obstruction and lost opportunity for discussion, it also created a chance for us to educate key board members.
After the meeting was closed, Audubon was still able to give its presentation to key board members and continue the discussion. It was clear that the board and their planning consultants were not only listening, but genuinely interested in what we had to say. They expressed their intent to protect the Natural Area boundary and showed a previously unseen desire to work with us toward implementing a bird-friendly design. We discussed the dark sky ordinance—a topic that has long been contentious—and for the first time we felt hope for protecting the Natural Area.
Much more work needs to be done, but it is clear that there are opportunities ahead and that we may have willing collaboration to lessen harmful impacts to the birds and wetlands of Gillmor Sanctuary and Great Salt Lake, a natural treasure.