TOOELE COUNTY — Since 1986, the Tree of Utah has stood as a lone sculpture in the west desert. Swedish artist Karl Momen, who created it, now has plans for a visitors' center.
Some find the tree fascinating, others have used it for target practice over the years. But the world-famous artist who fell in love with Utah's desert 30 years ago wants to make his artwork more accessible and has begun meeting with state leaders.
The 87-foot tall Tree of Utah remains a mysterious statement standing on the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats. It's located on the north side of I-80 about 95 miles west of Salt Lake City (25 miles east of Wendover)
Momen became fascinated with what he calls the "magnificent desert landscape" driving to and from California. He designed a tree, signifying life in a place seemingly void of life. In 1986, he said "It is going to be an object of thinking."
Momen's design included rocks and minerals from Utah's desert, glued onto giant cement spheres. Contractor Don Ryman and his six sons took on the project, which proved to be monumental back then.
They crafted giant spheres, 225 tons of cement in all, that were eventually suspended 80 feet in the air with little support — and the sculpture had to withstand high desert winds.
Momen gave his tree to the state but there was never a pull-off or exit ramp along the westbound side of I-80. To protect it from vandals, a metal fence surrounds it.
Now Momen wants to give the area new life. He has designed a visitors' center with an overlook, cafe, souvenir shop, restrooms and, of course, parking. He envisions something serene.
"You sit there, I put the bench, and you don't have any interruption of traffic, buildings, anything; just plain desert," Momen said. "In the early morning, you can see the sunrise, and by the evening, you see the sunset. It is the best time to sit and enjoy and relax."
"I have been almost all over the world, never have seen anything like that," he continued. "Because when you come at the right time, it is so beautiful."
Momen remembers his original reaction to terrain he says he didn't know existed. "(It was) August 1981, and I didn't know anything about the desert," he said. "A walk, the crunch of the salt, and I was so taken with the desert. And then it didn't take me many minutes to think something must be done here."
He says his sculpture, the Tree of Utah, remains internationally popular. "The Internet, it is unbelievable. Last year, between August and October 1st, over 1.2 million Facebook and YouTube (views)," he said.
Momen estimates the cost for the center will be between $1.3 million. He says he has out-of-state donors, foundations in the Silicon Valley, to cover the cost.
Gregg Buxton, the director, and Alan Bachman, the attorney with the Utah Division of Facilities Construction and Management, have had preliminary meetings with Momen.
"They love the project," Momen said. "It is very good to be a gateway to Utah."
Momen still needs to meet with representatives from the Utah Department of Transportation and the State Office of Tourism. He says it will take 10 months to a year to acquire the licensing from all the state agencies before construction can begin.