Peter Brock on How We Can Save Bonneville

Photograph Courtesy Sierra Ray/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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