SALT LAKE CITY — To celebrate May Day, groups advocating for clean air, environmental protection, and Native American remembrance all gathered in a remote area of west Salt Lake City on Monday for a common cause: to fight what they call the "polluting port."
Birds flew overhead and bugs buzzed among the crowd as they gathered for a news conference at the site of the former Salt Lake City landfill — now owned by a state agency — that has long been eyed for development of the proposed Utah Inland Port.
But rather than seeing the area near 7200 W. North Temple as an old dumping ground or a place fit for miles of train cars, concrete, shipping yards, loading stations and trucks, they see the area as sensitive wetlands integral for the Great Salt Lake's survival, a critical pit stop for millions of migratory birds, a home for a heard of antelope, and lands once cared for by Utah's historical Native American tribes.
"This area deserves protection," said Michael Cundick, co-founder of SLC Air Protectors.
"This is about love. It's about love for the birds that depend on the wetlands that the Great Salt Lake depends on. It's about love for our lungs, the ability to breathe into the future," he said, calling on Utahns to join their fight against the port.
If they don't, he said the future of the area would suffer from "exploitation" for "just for profit."
"Someday, it's going to be deserts and concrete," he said. "And that is not a future I want to bring kids into."
Though the Utah Inland Port Authority Board has barely begun planning the area — having hosted a slew of workshops for public engagement in recent weeks — dozens of protestors have already mobilized against the port, seeing it as a "disastrous" project that would only further damage the Wasatch Front's already poor air quality and decimate the ecosystem of the Great Salt Lake.
The Utah Inland Port's 16,000-acre boundary excludes natural areas already protected in the Salt Lake City Northwest Quadrant Master Plan, but to environmental groups including the Great Salt Lake Audubon and the Center for Biological Diversity, port development in the general area of Salt Lake's west side poses too much of a threat.
Further, port critics have been upset by indications that state leaders have an interest in using the port to maximize fossil fuel exports out of rural Utah.
"Why, in a time of climate change, when we know the consequences are so dire and the time is so short, would we be subsidizing something that would contribute massively to climate conditions?" said Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City councilwoman and campaigner with the Center of Biological Diversity who has spearheaded pushback on the inland port.
Derek Miller, chairman of the port board, said in a statement issued later Wednesday that the port "recognizes the potential impacts of future growth" on the developable acres in the project area that he said will come regardless of an inland port.
"If left as is, this zoning will result in far greater impacts to the environment, traffic congestion and the surrounding communities than the coordinated plan of a properly sequenced development," he said. "We have one opportunity to get this multi-generational opportunity correct and manage the growth of our state and the impact from other states correctly."
Miller said the port authority "remains committed to working collaboratively with all interested parties to help develop the most technologically advanced port through informed and conscious decisions that will reduce the impacts of growth, promote environmental stewardship and foster economic stability.”
Georgie Corkey, a board member of the Great Salt Lake Audubon, said the port would "threaten" a "globally important" area for between 7 and 10 million migratory birds, while also resulting in light, noise and air pollution.
As she spoke, a formation of geese flew north in the sky above. Sparrows flitted overhead.
"From an environmental standpoint, this proposed inland port cannot be situated in a worse location," she said.
Darren Parry, chairman of the Northwestern Band of Shoshone, said the land was once "sacred" to the Shoshone, Ute and Goshute tribes.
"This land was something so sacred and special that we called her mother. … That can't be forgotten in all of this," Parry said. "I've heard politicians say this land has no use, it's void. That can't be further from the truth. It's full of life."5 comments on this story
Amelia Leafaitulagi, a woman from California who protested the Southern California International Gateway, a rail yard facility located near the San Pedro Bay Ports, said her group "stopped" the project. She said she moved back to Utah recently to take care of her aging mother.
"Please don't give up," she said. "Please continue to fight. We can stop this, and we will."
Last week, the Utah Inland Port Authority's board meeting was canceled after a group of protestors crashed the meeting. The next meeting has yet to be scheduled.