Spring 2012: You Can Lead a Horse to Water But: Great Salt Lake Advisory Council Provides Useful Tools that Could Help in Our Work to Sustain the Lake

Spring 2012 Executive Director's Message

“If through scientific and economic analysis we can show the benefits that the natural environment offers, and show that the economic value is not zero, this gives policy makers a vehicle for addressing our fragile ecosystems."

- Edward B. Barbier, Professor of Economics, University of Wyoming

The road toward protecting Great Salt Lake for future generations is not as straight or as smooth as we might like it to be. As long as we have a management regime that is designed to facilitate multiple-use and sustained yield principles, there will be a tug of war between preserving the ecological integrity of the system and expanding development of the Lake’s resources to generate more jobs and more output.

That’s why it was terrific news to read the two studies commissioned by Governor Herbert’s Great Salt Lake Advisory Council (Advisory Council) in 2011. The studies, which were presented to the Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee during the 2012 Legislative Session generated insightful and compelling data about the importance of the Lake. Data that can help the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands (the Division) - responsible for managing the Lake - as it continues to grapple with this dynamic tension. And data which most certainly should inform the management strategies in the revisions of the Great Salt Lake Comprehensive Management Plan and Mineral Lease Plan, which are in final draft form and inviting public comment until April 26th.
See: www.gslplanning.utah.gov

The studies – “Economic Significance of the Great Salt Lake to the State of Utah” prepared by Bioeconomics, Inc., and “Definition and Assessment of Great Salt Lake Health” prepared by SWCA Environmental Consultants, confirm that the health of Great Salt Lake and the direct economic benefits of the Lake are inextricably linked. And that the total economic output that the Lake contributes to the State of Utah’s GDP through recreation, mineral extraction and the brine shrimp industry is $1.3 billion annually. Review the studies at: www.gslcouncil.utah.gov

Thanks to the Nature Conservancy of Utah for funding the studies,
the significance of these findings is that we have finally initiated a scientific and economic analysis of the Lake to justify its overall value as an ecosystem worth protecting. Big briny hugs, everyone!

The studies also emphasize that further work is required in both areas to develop a more comprehensive understanding about the synergy that exists between the Lake’s ecological health and the array of uses that generate output, income and employment. But because the Advisory Council can only serve in an advisory capacity, it cannot affect policy or management practices. Only the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands can do that.

Right now, cumulative permitted uses of the Lake are unaccounted for. The Division has no plan to determine what the long-term vision of ecological health of the Lake is supposed to be. And except for the insights that were gained from the Great Salt Lake Health study, there is no way of knowing whether or not the ecological integrity of the system is in peril.

That’s why FRIENDS believes that this is an excellent time for the Division to adopt a prudent management approach for the Lake. It should shift its management focus from resource use and development to resource protection and preservation. Such an approach would ensure that nothing is left up to chance about where we are headed with the future of Great Salt Lake. A tool that could help with this is the Great Salt Lake Health study.

This study was conducted by a blue ribbon panel of Great Salt Lake experts working with a process called Conservation Action Planning. Lake health in this case refers to ecological health which is determined by how well the lake functions to support significant bird populations, brine shrimp and reeflike stomatolitic structures.

Working with the lake in its current physical form – causeways, dikes and impounded wetlands – the panel considered each of the 4 bays – Gunnison, Gilbert, Farmington and Bear River. They chose to define health for eight ecological targets in and around the lake up to an elevation of 4,218’. (Historic average surface elevation is 4200’ asl).

The targets were selected because they represent the full range of biological diversity (different bird species, microbial life, salinity, and habitats) of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. The ecological targets are: open waters of the bays, unimpounded marsh complexes, impounded wetlands, mudflats and playas, isolated island habitats for breeding birds, alkali knolls, grasslands and agricultural lands. Using these targets, each bay was rated for its current state of ecological health from very good to poor.

Although the findings indicate that the current ecological health of the Lake is relatively good, some bays are doing better than others. And many of the targets could not be thoroughly evaluated because of insufficient data, which means that more research is necessary to fill those important information gaps.

The study identified a number of existing and future stresses that could not only degrade these conditions, but have far reaching implications that “threaten the integrity of Great Salt Lake habitats and the ability of migratory bird species to use the Lake ecosystem.” These stresses include reduction in lake levels that can cause a variety of impacts on the brine shrimp population, island nesting birds, and salinity. Phragmites - an invasive plant that thrives during low lake levels and degrades habitats. And the loss of alkali knolls – important shrubby mudflats.

So where do we fit into all of this in our role as stewards for Great Salt Lake?

Submitting comments by the April 26th deadline on the revised Great Salt Lake Comprehensive Management Plan and Mineral Lease Plan is the first step. Emphasize that the public must be involved in the heart of the process for evaluating new and renewing proposals for resource development. Insist that site specific planning be a part of each proposal before it is submitted. And urge the Division to initiate the development of a long-term plan that will ensure ecosystem health and biotic integrity for Great Salt Lake. The plan should include goals, conservation targets, threats, monitoring strategies, and appropriate actions that will protect and sustain the trust resources of the Lake.

Together we can work toward a future for the Lake that is both environmentally and economically beneficial for all of us. We have the tools to do it and the numbers to prove it.

In saline,



Over the past 4 years, FRIENDS has been extremely fortunate to have Emily Gaines working with us as our Education and Outreach Director. Through her dedication and hard work, Emily has inspired all of us to be better Lake educators and Lake advocates. She was truly a gift to FRIENDS and Great Salt Lake. We wish her all the best in her new position with the University of Utah. Thanks Em!


Why We Care

  • How might we appropriately care for something if we do not know about it? How can we as citizens make informed decisions, without first being informed? We cannot.

    Bruce Thompson, FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake