Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Looking north, traffic on I-15 makes its way past Point of the Mountain. The Point used to nearly touch I-15, but sand and gravel excavation has pushed it farther east.

Twenty thousand years ago, saber-toothed tigers lapped from the waters of Lake Bonneville, which covered everything from here to Wendover.

When the waters receded — and the cats died — a large bar of sand and gravel remained at the point of the Traverse Mountains, jutting out across the dusty lake bed like a long arm. Today, that sand spit is known as Point of the Mountain.

For those who live along the Wasatch Front, Point of the Mountain is much more than evidence of a prehistoric lake. It is a prison site, a hang-gliding park, a gravel pit, an old Pony Express stop.

It is, at the least, a point of reference. For some, it is the de facto boundary between two counties and two very distinct cultures.

It is also disappearing, as is the physical space that separates the two counties. Standing at the Point and looking south, it appears as if an army of housing units is advancing across the valley, threatening to engulf every acre of open space between Lehi and Draper. It seems a matter of time before Utah Valley and Salt Lake Valley become one.

"As we blend together, the state is becoming more seamless, and the boundaries are not so obvious," says Gary Herbert, a Utah County commissioner. "The Point of the Mountain is disappearing, the actual physical presence. But the cultural divide, at least the perception of one, is still there."

The diminishing Point

When Herbert says the Point is disappearing, he is right: decades of excavation have reduced it to a nub. Each year, millions of tons of sand and gravel are carved from the Point and turned into the asphalt that paves our highways and the concrete that supports our homes, strip malls and movie theaters. That has alarmed everyone from geologists to neighbors who worry about changing weather patterns.

Four firms operate gravel pits at the Point. The largest, Geneva Rock, runs two pits on 1,000 acres, one on each side of I-15. Thousands of trucks rumble to and from the pits every day, filling orders from contractors throughout the valley.

"I think it would surprise people who aren't in construction how much sand and gravel is used in their daily lives," says Al Schellenberg, Geneva Rock president. "If we stopped operations at Point of the Mountain for one day, all construction in both counties would come to a halt."

It is Friday afternoon, and Schellenberg, wearing a hard hat partially shading his face, is standing in a spot not visible from I-15 — the bowels of his operation. Massive mounds of dirt and gravel surround him. He points up a steep slope at a bulldozer pushing dirt and loose bits of rock down a hill toward a conveyor belt. The hill looks like a loaf of bread sliced in half.

"Technically we are moving the Point of the Mountain," he says. "We're moving it eastward."

The Point's abundant supply of gravel came from Lake Bonneville. Winds whipping across the massive freshwater lake, which once reached depths of 1,000 feet, deposited sediment at the base of the Traverse Mountains and created waves that eroded the mountain's face. Geologists view the Point as a treasure containing clues that explain the lake's past.

Gravel pit operators regularly dig up skeletons of musk ox and giant ground sloths, says Jim Kirkland, state paleontologist. Rather than turning fossils in, workers often discard them, fearing the state will fine or shut down plants that uncover fossils.

"We never shut them down. If it's private property, they have the right to do whatever they want," Kirkland says. "We just want to salvage the fossils. They can actually get big tax write-offs for turning fossils over to us."

A mammoth fossil, for example, could be valued at tens of thousands of dollars.

Kirkland guesses the remains of extinct horses and giant ground sloths are regularly uncovered at the Point. Other geologists worry about how fast the Point is disappearing.

"I wish they wouldn't take so much of it away," says Tom Morris, a Brigham Young University geology professor. "I understand the needs of population growth, but there are ways to address it without leaving scars."

For Schellenberg, there is nothing wrong with slicing a mountain in half. Dusty gravel pits are as necessary as paved roads. Besides, Geneva tries to be a good neighbor. It has planted trees to serve as a buffer between the plant and I-15, and it runs two water trucks to keep dust down whenever the plant is operating. The company has also paved many of its roads to reduce dust.

To appease hang gliders, Geneva traded property to the state that hang gliders wanted for a landing zone. The company also lets hang gliders use its roads to reach the top of the ridge.

"They have the potential to affect us the most," says Steve Mayer, owner of Cloud 9 Hanggliding. "But I have nothing but good things to say about Geneva and how accommodating they have been."

Fears that excavation could change weather patterns are unwarranted, says Dave Sanders, the state's lead forecaster with the National Weather Service. But he did say the mountain's shrinking size could have a small impact on wind patterns.

Some neighbors have complained about dust, rock blasting and beeping trucks late at night, says Draper city spokesman Jeff Hymas. Schellenberg says city planners in Draper and Lehi should rethink allowing developers to build right next to gravel pits.

"A lot of people would just like to see all the gravel pits moved out to the west desert," Schellenberg says. "If that happened, we'd have to use four or five times as many trucks."

Point of the Mountain is the ideal location for gravel pits, he says, because it sits between the state's two most populated counties. Its centralized location means less trucks are needed to haul gravel, which means road projects cost less money.

For example, Geneva's current road construction project, the widening of the I-15 car pool lane from 10600 South in Sandy to the Highland/Alpine Interchange in north Utah County, is being completed a few hundred yards from where Schellenberg is standing.

"We're in a business that's very criticized," he says. "It's viewed as dirty or undesirable to live next to. But it's tied to so many things in our lives we take for granted."

Schellenberg guesses there's enough gravel left in the Point to mine it for at least 50 years. When it's gone, the company will reclaim it by planting trees and other plants. Perhaps it will become a golf course, as other Geneva pits have.

The cultural divide

As the Point of the Mountain disappears, and the physical space between the two counties diminishes, what will become of the cultural divide between Salt Lake Valley and Utah Valley?

For decades, the Point has been viewed as a line in the sand. To the north, is the state's most diverse and cosmopolitan county. To the south, its most homogenous and conservative.

"I think absolutely there's a cultural divide," says Alex Simon, a sociology professor at Utah Valley State College. "It is a widely held perception in Utah County and Salt Lake."

As Jon Krakauer, author of "Under the Banner of Heaven," sees it, Salt Lake City may be the official headquarters of the LDS Church, but Utah County is the "true Mormon heartland . . . the site of chaste little towns like Highland, American Fork, Orem, Payson and Salem — where the population is nearly 90 percent LDS. The Sabbath is taken seriously in these parts. Almost all businesses close on Sundays, as do public swimming pools, even on the hottest days of the summer months."

For such characteristics, Utah County is often ridiculed — and avoided.

Simon says some professors at UVSC, uncomfortable with what he calls Utah County's "right-wing reactionary culture," choose to commute from Salt Lake rather than live in Provo or one of its suburbs.

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"The common phrase I grew up with is, the state stops at Point of the Mountain. There's this perception out there that everything south of Point of the Mountain is the sticks," says Herbert.

"There's been too much in the past of an us-and-them mentality," Herbert says. "Us and them can be Mormons versus non-Mormons or city versus rural. And it's exemplified by the fact that people think there are borders out there. We've got to get rid of that mentality."

Simon is skeptical that will happen, regardless of how much sand is taken from Point of the Mountain.

"Look at New York City. You walk a few blocks and you run into a new community," he says. "It's very difficult to erase cultural boundaries."


E-mail: jhyde@desnews.com