Ray Boren, Deseret News
The state is exploring ways to manage issues affecting the Great Salt Lake, home to "Spiral Jetty."

The mix of oil and art and whether the late artist Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" will suffer as a result of drilling operations five miles away drew the attention this week of Utah Gov. Jon Hunstman Jr.

Huntsman met Monday with Utah Department of Natural Resources director Mike Styler and others about forming a commission to help manage issues that affect the Great Salt Lake.

One issue lately has been how to protect the lake's 1,500-foot-long coil of basalt rock called "Spiral Jetty," which Huntsman visited by helicopter after the meeting Monday.

"He's concerned about the long-term vision for the lake," Huntsman's spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley said. She said the governor was not focused only on the jetty, which was singled out on his schedule for Monday and where his helicopter landed for a closer look.

Huntsman, Styler and several state agencies are concerned about the lake's habitat and how its waters are impacted by recreation, hunters, industry, inflow from streams and by the five counties that lay claim to portions of the lake. Over the decades about 50 drilling operations have looked for oil under the lake.

Canadian-based Pearl Exploration and Production Ltd. still needs to answer a few questions from state regulators, but it may be only a few weeks away from obtaining a permit to drill in an area near the jetty where it already has a lease with the state. A public comment period that is now over drew about 3,000 e-mails and letters and almost 200 phone calls to the Governor's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office.

Most during the comment period were in opposition to Pearl's proposal, including New York's Dia Art Foundation.

"Spiral Jetty" was gifted to Dia in 1999 as part of Smithson's estate. Dia officials recently stated on their Web site that Dia will pursue creating a buffer zone around the sculpture to help protect it. To do that, Styler said Dia will need to pick up leases with the state that are currently under contract with oil interests, which may not renew their leases.

"I don't know that there are any decisions that have been made," he said. And there are other pieces to the property puzzle.

Even though a Box Elder county-managed road leads to "Spiral Jetty," some of the rough trek to the remote jetty is over private land. Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining's Jim Springer and Styler both pointed out how the property owners could tire of Jetty hunters getting lost and venturing off the road and onto their land.

"They're pretty good natured about it," Styler said about the landowners. "But they let us know it's a bother."

For those who seek out the jetty, the reward in recent years of low lake levels has been an exposed artwork like nothing else in the world. Dia and critics of drilling, including Friends of the Great Salt Lake, contend the jetty and those viewing it will be negatively impacted, first by a drilling rig and then by any pumping operations about five miles away.

"My personal opinion is it's not going to present any great eyesore or change to a visit to the jetty," Springer said. He described the likely drilling platform to be about 16 feet by 16 feet and about six feet high. "It would be interesting to see what that looks like five miles away."

In separate phone interviews, Springer and Styler also mentioned that the jetty was built a few hundred yards from old oil operations. Springer has seen the natural oil seeps on the surface of Great Salt Lake waters near the 1970 artwork that connects to the shore at Rozel Point.

"There is oil in the lake — we all know that," Styler said. He wants to make sure Pearl's plans don't compromise the environment or jetty. "My personal opinion is that it can be done pretty safely."

The question Pearl will have to answer, Styler added, is whether today's technology is advanced enough to pull oil from the area that is difficult to reach and process and still make a profit.

Springer noted that another irony is how the state wouldn't approve a proposal these days to build something like what Smithson created three years before he died in 1973.

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