For thousands of years, the Great Salt Lake has been a refuge: to Native Americans who lived on its shores, to Mormon pioneers, to millions of migratory birds and to the human soul.
At least that's the way some people see it, like Gov. Olene Walker and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams, who gathered Saturday to celebrate the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve.
"At a time of so much contention in the world, this becomes a place of peace," said Tempest Williams, author of the nationally acclaimed book "Refuge," which explores her own spiritual passion for the lake.
Her remarks, made Saturday at dedication ceremonies for a new visitors center at the preserve, were echoed by a host of dignitaries, all of whom praised the Nature Conservancy for its $14 million fund-raising effort to acquire 11 miles of land along the Great Salt Lake shore. The dedication culminated a 20-year effort to protect nearly 4,000 acres along the eastern shore of the lake.
"We preserved this the old-fashioned way," said Dave Livermore, the conservancy's Utah state director. "We bought it painstakingly over 20 years."
That effort was not lost on philanthropist Steve Denkers of the Willard L. Eccles Charitable Foundation.
"Our financial support became the seed money for the project," he said. "Money for wetlands was a real stretch for us, but I personally feel it was money that could not be better utilized."
The $1.3 million visitors center invites people to stroll a 1-mile-long boardwalk that loops through prime bird habitat and to study exhibits from a 30-foot-high observation tower. It's what Walker calls an "outdoor laboratory" where schoolchildren can learn about the avocets, ibis, gulls and the hundreds of other species that stop along the shores of the Great Salt Lake to rest and feed on bugs and brine shrimp.
Layton Mayor Jerry Stevenson also sees the preserve as a way to draw visitors to Davis County.
"This is an amazing place that should be preserved and not developed," he said. "It's marvelous to walk across the boardwalk, sit and contemplate. I look at it as a launching place for tourism.
And for many people it's a holy place.
"What a blessing this represents for all mankind," said Elder Alexander Morrison, an emeritus member of the First Quorum of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "I firmly believe for the sake of our spiritual sanity we must connect with nature."
Walker, who recalled fond memories of visiting the lake as a youngster, noted that Utah is expecting to add 1 million more people by 2020, and that creates an even greater need to preserve open space.
"Clearly, we have set a line where development ends and nature begins," she said.
John Milliken, chairman of the Nature Conservancy, couldn't agree more. He and others used Saturday's dedication, which drew about 150 invited guests, to rally support for a statewide initiative for a $150 million bond measure to preserve open space. It won't be known until July 6 whether enough valid signatures were collected to put it on the November ballot.
Backers are optimistic.
"If we can only figure out a way to get shorebirds to vote," Milliken joked.
Former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn, a supporter of the initiative, said Utah needs more open space for such wildlife like birds that know no political boundaries. "It should not be any way partisan," he said.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, remarked that a place like the preserve is not about politics, but beauty and spirituality.
E-mail: [email protected]