Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — It was nearly 40 years ago The Nature Conservancy of Utah acquired 1,192 acres near the Great Salt Lake in Davis County from a private company.
It was long before the housing crunch, the rapid population growth in Utah, and the expansion of the suburbs into the western rural areas of Davis and Weber counties.
Dave Livermore, Utah state director of The Nature Conservancy, recalled there was initial skepticism over the acquisition and then a growing dawning of understanding.
"People thought we were crazy. There was no development out there at all," he said. "But the point was playing the long game, to get there before the developers get there."
A county commissioner at the time understood, Livermore said.
"He knew it would be an essential part of Davis County 50 years from now. The foresight is that we are in it for the long run. The decisions we make today will have impacts for generations."
The Great Salt Lake Shoreline Preserve now consists of 4,400 acres and is a critical stop for as many as 6 million migratory birds.
Because of that, it has been named as one of only 17 sites of Hemispheric Importance in the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network, an internationally important designation.
The preserve is a popular bird-watching venue and serves a natural buffer between the lake and concrete, protecting over almost 11 miles of critical wetland and upland habitat along the Great Salt Lake's eastern shore.
This is one of the success stories The Nature Conservancy has worked toward over its 70-year history.
Another victory was announced last year after the conservancy said it had facilitated securing a donor to buy Fremont Island from its owner, who had been planning for the island to host homes and other development.
Instead, the 3,000-acre island in the Great Salt Lake has had a conservation easement placed on it by the conservancy, and the island has been turned over to the state Division of Forestry, Fire and Sovereign Lands.
Under the terms of the easement held by the conservancy, the island will be open to the public for nonmotorized recreational use including hiking, bird-watching, picnicking and biking. Limited recreational facilities such as trails and picnic areas may also be built. However, all forms of dumping, mining, development and environmental degradation to the island are prohibited. And no fires, no hunting/shooting, no camping will be allowed.
"People might wonder why would we want to buy an island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake. The answer is that we are looking at the long view," Livermore said. "We want to make sure our kids, and their kid's kids, are able to enjoy the quality of life we enjoy."
Beyond its natural beauty, Fremont Island is a historical treasure.
It includes a narrative about Utah's history, including a pair of gravesites and probably the oldest Catholic or Christian relic in Utah, carved by an unimpressed Kit Carson when he visited the island. Additionally, grave robber Jean Baptiste was exiled to the island by Brigham Young in 1862 and his ultimate fate remains unknown.
Since its inception in Utah, The Nature Conservancy has carried out 198 projects on private land and 40 projects on public land to conserve 1,072,134 acres.
Globally, it has protected 115.5 million acres.
Mace Hack, director of the conservancy's Leveraging our Lands Program, said conservation takes on many shapes that include outright purchase of the property that remains in control of the conversancy, an "assist" like what happened with Utah's Fremont Island and conservation easements — agreements worked out with local landowners to retain a landscape's natural value.
In Utah, many of those conservation easements involve ranchers and farmers who want acreage permanently preserved for generations to come. Or, working pieces of agriculture can serve as research hubs like Dugout Ranch, which is more than 5,000 acres in this spectacularly scenic area adjacent to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.
"In every situation, we want to leverage as much conservation as possible," Hack said.
Like Livermore, Hack emphasized that the organization's focus is on the long term, what is best for landscapes, and what is most strategic. It's a view Hack said stretches out for a century or more.
"Land is very expensive, so it becomes very challenging in this environment to marshal the the necessary resources," Hack said. "We tend to think out far enough in the future that we avoid that last 100 acres in the neighborhood."
But part of The Nature Conservancy is about recognizing where opportunity presents a chance to act and meet threats head-on.
"Development pressure can get communities to think about being more proactive," Hack said. "Development pressure can be helpful in a perverse way."
Livermore points to the huge impact an often smelly and overlooked natural asset like the Great Salt Lake has on Utah.
"The Great Salt Lake generates $1.3 billion a year for our economy," he said. "That is why it was so important to secure that property."
Livermore added that Utah needs to be wise about its growth.
"I think the key is not if Utah is going to grow, but how. We have our work cut out for us. People don't move here for our schools or roads. They move here for our open spaces, our mountains, our great outdoors."
The Nature Conservancy quietly works to further the protection of the "outdoors" in Utah and elsewhere around the globe.
Livermore credits the organization's collaborative approach.
"We need those that sound an alarm on an issue, but we also need groups that roll up their sleeves and try to arrive at solutions. It used to be that conservation was out there somewhere, like this unique and remote island, but now it is where we live."