Peter Brock on how we can save Bonneville

Photograph Credit: Ashim D’Silva, Courtesy Unsplash

For those who’ve never had the privilege of attending a speed meet on Utah’s famed Bonneville Salt Flats, they’ve missed absorbing the aura of one of nature’s greatest wonders—a national treasure every bit as important to America and the world as Yellowstone or Yosemite. 

Its brilliant, hard, white, billiard-table-smooth surface has been a magnet for those who seek record speeds since the early 1900s, when it became dangerously obvious that the softer sand beach near Daytona was simply too unpredictable for straight-line speeds over 150 mph. What has happened to Bonneville’s salt in those intervening years is a national disgrace, as those left in charge to preserve its majesty colluded to destroy, in less than 100 years, what it took nature millions to create. 

Standing in the pits, Bonneville’s pristine saline racing surface stretches for miles, the end invisible beyond the curvature of the earth, making its entirety only visible from space. 

What is unseen is its dwindling thickness. Back in the late ’30s, when England’s gentlemen speed kings—John Cobb, George Eyston, Reid Railton and Sir Malcolm Campbell—brought their massive, airplane-engined projectiles to set the world’s absolute speed records, the salt averaged some 4 feet in thickness, with occasional areas reaching some 6 feet.

Today, the best parts of Bonneville’s racing surface are less than 2 inches thick.

With no formal national oversight of the area until 1947, when Harry Truman established what would become the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, it was relatively easy for mining companies to quietly divert the mineral content from this “limitless” natural resource for private profit. 

Back then, hardly anyone noticed or even cared except local hero Ab Jenkins, who began using the salt in 1925 to set various speed and endurance records—a vocation that lasted some 30 years, throughout which he encouraged the world’s best to come and compete on the safest, most beautiful racing surface in the world. 

Members of the Southern California Timing Association negotiated their first meet in 1949, when they gained formal permission to use the salt from the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce—who, with Jenkins’s encouragement and guidance, finally understood the landscape’s economic potential for Utah.

Racers are not usually thought of as being environmentally conscious, but many concerned members of the SCTA could see the long-term damage being wrought by the extraction of salt and potash. They began trying, on their own time, to negotiate with the Bureau of Land Management in hopes of reversing the damage. 

Years of study and countless meetings with mining engineers, government bureaucrats and environmentalists were frustrating. BLM officials would never allow members of the ad-hoc team to view the original leases signed by the early administrators of the BLM. 

Officials of Kaiser Industries, the largest mining concern involved in removing the mineral content from the lakebed, were open to solving the problem. Perhaps because of all the good Kaiser had done in WWII, or maybe because of what it was paying to the BLM, its officials were reluctant to disclose the arrangement. 

It wasn’t until the thousands of members of the racing community were united by dedicated individuals within the performance industry’s Save the Salt campaign that documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act disclosed what had really been going on. The wording on these original BLM leases stated that the mining concerns were contractually obligated to proceed with all haste until all potash was depleted, with no restoration of the surface required. For some 60 years, these leases had been in effect with no attempt made at reversing the damage—which continues to this day unchecked. 

As a result of the efforts of the racers’ Save the Salt Foundation, Congress in 2018 voted to appropriate $5 million through the secretary of state to be awarded to the BLM for the specific purpose of reversing the damage to what remained of one of America’s great natural vistas.

The funds, however, were diverted to other BLM programs having nothing to do with Bonneville. Under continuing pressure from environmentalists and Save the Salt, the BLM and Utah’s Department of Natural Resources have since negotiated an agreement to create a 10-year, multi-million-dollar restoration program, with most of the money coming from the BLM plus donations from the racing community.

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peterpan3201 New Reader
8/8/23 1:26 p.m.

I was visiting Freinds in Salt lake and this Firefighter I knew Had a plane. I was delivering a MG TD to a freind in Napa, Ca. He suggested we fly out to Bonneville. I assumed we would fly over then head back. Well as we approached the area we were parallel to the race track on the north side. The pilot then suggested we just land. I instantly freaked out I knew the salt had soft spots that you could not see. The plane was lively with conversation about what the crash would look like. Well we landed and crashed , in my mind.  Just kidding. The pilot made a perfect landing while I was sweating. As we got off the plane everyone was looking to see who these big shots were. Nothing and No one to see here just some crazy cowboy pilot and his sweating freinds. If you have not been at Bonnivllle for speed week it is other worldly. But please drive. You could be racing on Pluto with better lighting ( I know it's no longer a planet, also being so far away from the star we call the Sun I guess it is rather dark ) I didn't know but should have guessed that the money the BLM had to restore was diverted to a seemingly more important project. Bummer! Great to here the race community has worked with the BLM to get things back on the good foot.

bosswrench New Reader
12/2/23 1:15 p.m.

What do the extractors do with the left-over salt after they remove the potash, which is a low percent of the load? Why not truck the de-potashed salt back with the same haulers they use for the raw material, and spead it around a little with the same scrapers?  The winter rains will even out the surface. Oh, silly me- that costs money and eats into the profit. Sorry....

russelljones48 New Reader
12/5/23 8:58 p.m.

Peter,  Thank you for this article..  Even though the Salts are a bucket list item for me, I had no idea what condition it's in..  Where do I contribute?

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