The Bonneville Salt Flats — a vast expanse of hard salt crusting a slightly curved 30,000-acre patch of earth in the state of Utah — is one of the most bizarre places on the planet, alien to the eye, nose, and skin. Life is unsustainable on this barren wasteland — unless you’re talking about life as it is known to the speed-freak nation. As it turns out, that cruel, saline environment, some five feet thick at the core and stretching nearly forty-seven square miles along Interstate 80 near Utah’s border with Nevada, is God-given perfection for long, mashed-pedal, automotive speed-record runs. A need at the very core of our being, we would say.
As Indianapolis is to the open-wheel racing driver, as Pomona is to a Top Fueler, the Bonneville Salt Flats is mecca to speed demons who’ve been bringing their cars and cojones here to test since 1914, when “Terrible” Teddy Tetzlaff broke the world speed record of 142 mph in the famed Blitzen Benz. Only it wasn’t official. That honor went to Sir Malcolm Campbell and his monster Bluebird in 1935, when he set the first documented Bonneville record of 301.1 mph.
The beauty of the Salt Flats is found not only in the noble pursuit of maximum earthly velocity, it’s also that anyone with a car and an entry fee can have at it. My friend Rob Gibby ran there for the first time in 2006 with his grade-school friend, Robin Dripps, who engineered and drove their ’32 Ford roadster. Dripps set a new E/STR class record of 168.370 mph. They were both sixty-four years old (Vile Gossip, November 2007). Even Automobile Magazine is in the Bonneville history books, teaming up with General Motors in 2005 to set a record of 189.205 mph in the G/BGL 2.0-liter supercharged gasoline-fueled lakester class. I made my own pilgrimage there (“Monterey or Bust,” December 1986), veering from a cross-country road trip with crazy boys in vintage Mercedes-Benzes to kneel on the sacred salt and give it a good-luck kiss. I promised to come back.
If you’ve promised the same thing, you’d better get a move on and join me now in a very real battle to save one of our most irreplaceable playgrounds. Hyperbole is us, sure, but Bonneville is truly facing oblivion. It has shrunk over the years from 90,000 to 30,000 acres and decreased in strength and thickness without anyone really paying attention. The problem seems to be an upset in the delicate dance between the removal of the beautiful mineral-rich salt being mined for its potash and magnesium and its replenishment by the mining companies under the half-assed jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management.
Not that the BLM did anything to save the Salt Flats until a citizen’s group called Save the Salt (savethesalt.org), in conjunction with the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), presented its case. The BLM duly studied the reasons for the salt loss and concluded that it was most assuredly the result of nearby mining activities. It entered into an agreement, initiated by Save the Salt, to have Reilly Industries’ mining operations replenish mined salt by pumping brine back to the Flats after potash and magnesium had been extracted. A BLM study found that the replenishment program was indeed capable of stabilizing the Salt Flats.
Unfortunately, when Reilly left and Intrepid Potash moved in, the BLM let the agreement expire. Today, Intrepid says it’s voluntarily cooperating. Indeed, it is sending a brine solution out onto the Flats in the wake of its mining activities, but with a few critical differences: Intrepid’s replenishment efforts are on a greatly diminished scale from what is needed and fall far short of what Reilly agreed to do. Intrepid is flooding the Salt Flats in March instead of November, not leaving enough time for the brine to adequately permeate and bolster Bonneville’s surface crust, and salt that should be returned to the flats after the extraction of minerals is now being bagged and sold by Intrepid to municipalities for road use.
SEMA and Save the Salt say they want the BLM to immediately enact a binding agreement that will ban bagged salt sales and demand a permanent agreement for “mass balance” salt replenishment, an operation that should happen in the fall to give the Flats a real chance to recover.
Go to contactingthecongress.org to easily obtain contact information for your representatives in Washington, D.C. Ask that they support Save the Salt’s proposal and legislation being introduced in Congress to end mining, and ask that
they support hearings to draw attention to the destruction of what any enthusiast would deem at the top of the world’s
most endangered places list. Without our help, the Bonneville Salt Flats might not survive.