Last year, Utah state legislature set aside nearly 20,000 acres of land in the northwestern quadrant of the Salt Lake Valley to be developed as an inland port.
The passage of the proposed port was met with overwhelming dissent, resulting in protests that have, in some cases, escalated to violence. One protest, which took place at the Salt Lake Chamber on July 9, ended in the arrest of eight people.
Those in opposition cite mainly the social and environmental consequences that such a large freighting operation could have on the community.
Inland ports, accessible by air, road and railway, are stopping points for cargo from overseas on its way to being distributed among inland destinations. Similar ports exist in Kansas City, Missouri and Greenville, South Carolina.
According to the recently formed Inland Port Authority, the operation has the potential to give Salt Lake City’s local economy a boost, create more jobs and accommodate a projected increase in the value of shipped goods in the United States. It could also have devastating impacts on the surrounding ecosystem.
“The overarching concern is about what this would do to the air quality in northern Utah, particularly in the Salt Lake Valley, closely followed by concerns about what it would do to wildlife habitat in the Great Salt Lake ecosystem,” said Deeda Seed, senior Utah campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is an example of unsustainable growth that will be very harmful for future Utahns. What happens on these 16,000 acres does determine the fate of the Salt Lake Valley, to a large extent.”
The Center for Biological Diversity, along with groups like the League of Women Voters, Great Salt Lake Audubon and Salt Lake Air Protectors, was among the initial groups to express opposition to the passage of the port’s proposal in 2018.
“Over the course of the last year and a half, we’ve grown. We’ve created some of the tools that we need to educate people about the harm that this proposed port could do to our air,” Seed said. “Also, the contributions it could make to greenhouse gas emissions, and the problems associated with building something like this in wildlife habitat that’s so critically important.”
On the opposing side of the conflict is the need for a bridge to the gap between western seaports and inland destinations throughout the American west. According to Transportation Topics, the development of inland ports is “increasingly critical to the nation’s supply chain,” and serves to relieve pressure from ports directly connected to the sea.
The Great Salt Lake, closely adjacent to the planned port, doesn’t just provide a stopping point for cargo in transit, but also for over 300 species of migratory birds, according to Great Salt Lake Audubon (GSLA).
Due to the decline of saline lakes in the region, huge proportions of entire bird populations use the Great Salt Lake on their migrations. The port would damage this habitat by increasing air, light, and noise pollution.
“It’s estimated to be over 10 million birds a year [that use the lake],” Heather Dove, president of the GSLA, said. “There are not that many of these saline lakes left in the west. They’re all being diverted and overused, so there are fewer places for them to forage, rest and tank up for the rest of their journey north.”
According to Dove, the port would sit directly on upland habitat (outskirts of the Great Salt Lake that become shoreline during periods of flooding), which provide prime foraging, nesting and resting grounds. In addition, the surrounding mud flats, which appear bare to the untrained eye, contain a wealth of insects and crustaceans that many birds rely on for survival.
As these food sources decline, the birds that feed on them follow the same trend.
“They are kind of a sentinel marker of the health of our environment,” Dove said. “As they decline and diminish, it means the same thing for humans.”
For the time being, however, a decline in the population of humans, particularly in the Salt Lake Valley, seems unfathomable. Because of its relatively high birth rate and an economy that attracts people both from other states and internationally, Utah had the highest population growth rate of any state this decade, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
With more people, there is an inevitable need for more jobs. The presence of more people in and around the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, however, could lead to issues beyond noise and light pollution, said Steve Erickson, a policy advocate for the GSLA Council.
One issue that concerns Erickson is the use of chemicals for mosquito abatement, which are applied aerially and by hand to areas like the lakeshore that are mosquito-prone. This would not only introduce potentially harmful chemicals to a sensitive environment, but also take away the food source that mosquitoes provide.
Another is the introduction of invasive species, which comes as a result of high shipping traffic.
“Wherever there are large quantities of goods and containers, there are going to be invasives,” Erickson said. “It’s a mess. It’s a concern we have, and we don’t know how to quantify it, other than that it’s a problem in any kind of port setting.”
While the outlook may seem grim for conservationists, Erickson has hope that a suitable compromise can be reached between those in favor of and those opposed to the port.
“I feel confident that if we can’t downsize it, we can minimize the damages that are inevitable if they build this,” Erickson said. “I don’t think it’s going to be anything like they envisioned it.”
Dove expressed a similar sentiment.
“People need to be connected to nature,” she said. “This is one last big area left, and now that’s going to go. If we keep raising our voices and including more people over a broader diversity of groups, I think they [the Port Authority] are going to have to deal with it eventually.”