Weber County is the latest local government to launch an inland port industrial project and is adjacent to the drying Great Salt Lake floor and important wetlands.
The Weber County Commission unanimously approved the 903-acre site earlier this month. To the south is the state-owned Ogden Bay Wildlife Management area, one of the lake’s largest managed wetland complexes, providing important habitat for millions of migratory birds. To the north is a Union Pacific rail line that heads west and bisects the lake over a rock-filled dam — the same dam that state administrators have been using since last year to keep the salinity from rising and killing off all of the lake’s keystone species.
Commissioner Jim Harvey hinted that port development could revitalize the Ogden region’s long rail-related economic history.
“Some of the wise, philanthropic men of days gone by who helped build America,” he said at an Aug. 8 meeting, “saw that the best place to build a transcontinental railroad was right here in our beautiful County is.”
But like most port projects proposed to date, the site includes some of the state’s few remaining wetlands that are quickly disappearing in the West as they have been paved for development.
“The Weber County location is extremely concerning,” said Deeda Seed, a fellow at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The center is attempting to map port projects across the state and overlay them with potential wetlands in the Great Salt Lake watershed.
The main port project in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant includes some of the few remaining Great Salt Lake wetlands in Salt Lake County. A port planned in Tooele County also features Great Salt Lake wetlands. In Box Elder County, a legal port complex is located half a mile from the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. And a port area near Brigham City Airport is “basically all wetland,” Seed said.
The Inland Port Authority (UIPA) has confirmed that a port project in Spanish Fork has wetlands near Utah Lake, which connects to the Great Salt Lake via the Jordan River. And the new Weber County project is adjacent to the mouth of the Weber River, where it empties into the shrinking Salt Lake.
“You shouldn’t be intentionally subsidizing development next to a world important bird area,” Seed said. “You shouldn’t build on the shores of the Great Salt Lake either.”
The country’s “greenest port”?
UIPA has realigned its focus to support developments that encourage the transport of goods by train rather than by truck. According to UIPA Managing Director Ben Hart, port projects are therefore always being built near wetlands.
“If [only] I could go back 150 years and change things,” Hart said. “[Back then], someone decided to build the state’s entire railroad along the wetlands. I think her intuition was that no one will ever want anything and no one will need it [them]. So it seems that in every project area that we come across this problem arises.”
When communities invite UIPA to create port projects, its staff conducts an environmental assessment that includes identifying wetlands, Hart said. The quasi-government agency plans to convince property developers to preserve wetlands on their properties.
However, Hart acknowledged that UIPA does not have the authority to require the protection of wetlands. It sets incentives.
“The advantage of integrating the inland port is [we’re] “I’m very aware of and addressing this issue,” Hart said, noting that the zoning and developers are already in place, regardless of UIPA involvement.
“[We’re] “An organization that has a strong desire to be good environmentalists,” Hart said, “and to protect areas like this.”
But Seed said UIPA has failed to get developers to curb environmental degradation in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant, the port’s original jurisdiction.
“Everything they do there is unsustainable,” Seed said. “It’s up to every developer to build warehouses as quickly as possible.”
Wetlands are not only important for birds. They absorb and buffer the effects of flooding. They clean the water from impurities. They prevent erosion and provide opportunities for recreation.
State lawmakers have earmarked nearly half a billion dollars for conservation efforts to save the Great Salt Lake and its vital ecology. They also established the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust, whose mission is to identify projects and figure out how to manage some of those funds. Last month, the Trust announced it would commit $10 million to wetland conservation.
At the same time, the Port Authority may be pouring millions more into developments that could result in significant wetland degradation.
“It seems really contradictory,” said Heather Dove, president of Great Salt Lake Audubon.
Development along the Wasatch Front has destroyed a significant amount of wetland and bird feeding areas, Dove said. What is now a sea of warehouses and parking lots in the Northwest Quadrant once served as “first” upland habitat and playas, she said. Previously, the Legacy Highway and the housing developments it promoted led to the disappearance of farms and open spaces near the east shore of the lake.
“We’ve lost so much habitat and so much wetland in the last decade, it’s just shocking,” Dove said.
Advocates for the lake and the environment staged a port protest on Capitol Hill Thursday while Gov. Spencer Cox held his monthly news conference.
Asked by a reporter whether the state should support port projects so close to the lake despite struggling with water shortages and overconsumption, Cox said he was confident in UIPA’s leadership.
“This will be the greenest inland port in the country,” said Cox. “It’s something we’re all committed to and working towards.”
Seed called the governor’s statement “absurd.”
“Governor. Cox obviously doesn’t understand what’s going on,” she said. “There’s no evidence of that.”
Weber County’s latest port proposal, which UIPA has yet to review, “is the most shocking of them all,” Seed said.
What we know about plans for the Weber County port
Little is known about the developers who are targeting Weber County for port development, or the companies that are trying to lure county officials.
The property consists of three large properties owned by LITCHFIELD CAPITAL LLC. The owner shares an address with Arizona-based real estate developer Bela Flor.
Commission chairman Gage Froerer voted to create UIPA in 2018 while serving as a representative in the Utah legislature. He said he lobbied for the original port to be located in western Weber County rather than Salt Lake City.
“We had the area and the political environment,” said Froerer in an interview, “that would have promoted it.” [unlike] What happened at Salt Lake?
UIPA’s wresting of control of the Northwest Quadrant from Salt Lake City has led to lawsuits, public disputes and protests, some of which have resulted in arrests. The smaller ports that are springing up across Utah have sparked far less local unrest. The Weber County Commission’s port permit appears to have largely flown under the local community’s radar.
Froerer, a prominent Utah real estate agent, said the 900 acres they approved this month are just the first phase of a larger 6,000-acre industrial development planned for the west side of the county, extending north of the Ogden Bay wetland complex .
“We’ve been calling it West Weber ‘mega-site’ for the last four or five years,” he said.
Regarding the impact on the Great Salt Lake, Froerer said the county will prioritize businesses that don’t use a lot of water.
“It could be high tech, it could be data centers, it could be a number of different things,” he said when asked for examples. “It wouldn’t be heavy industry using a lot of water.”
He added that the development will include new water and sewer lines.
“We have a sewage area that can currently drain into the Great Salt Lake,” Froerer said. “We will have the opportunity to inject more water into the treated Great Salt Lake.”
A Great Salt Lake Strike Team report released earlier this year found that human and natural water use is responsible for 73% of the lake’s current dire state, while climate change and natural rainfall variability account for a much smaller proportion.
Cities, farmers and mineral extractors in the lake’s watershed manage and deplete more than 2 million acre-feet annually. Municipal and industrial developments currently utilize 381,000 acre-feet that would otherwise reach the Great Salt Lake and its wetlands.
This article is published via The Great Salt Lake Collaborative: A Solutions Journalism Initiativea partnership of news, education and media organizations dedicated to educating readers about the Great Salt Lake.