HOOPER, Utah — The Utah Inland Port Authority has approved plans for a massive development that environmental groups argue is too close to the Great Salt Lake.

But port authority leaders insist they are taking steps to protect the lake and the ecologically sensitive areas rather than allowing development to trample all over it.

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"We feel like we’re playing a harmonious role and we can actually do a lot of good in protecting these areas," said Ben Hart, the executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority, who took FOX 13 News and other news media outlets on a tour of the proposed site in western Weber County on Monday.

The area is more than 9,000 acres of farmland and wetlands near 900 South and 9300 West. Ogden Bay and the Harold Crane Waterfowl Management Area sandwich the site. Compass Minerals is nearby. The Union Pacific Railroad comes off the Great Salt Lake causeway, and it's the area where the West Weber Corridor (another highway) is planned. The area has been zoned for industrial development for decades, even though farms and ranches are nearby.

The inland port has been billed as one of the largest economic development projects in state history. A massive import-export center, it's designed to get goods in and out quickly through the region. A very controversial project originally planned for Salt Lake City's northwest side near the airport, the inland port has now pivoted to nine "satellite ports" around the state including the one in western Weber County.

Hart acknowledges the sensitivity surrounding the Great Salt Lake, which dropped to a historic low in 2022 as a result of water diversion, drought and impacts from a changing climate. The Great Salt Lake shrinking has set off alarm bells with the public and political leaders. The impacts from it include reduced snowpack (where 95% of Utah's water comes from), toxic dust from an exposed lake bed (arsenic is among the minerals in the sediment), as well as harms to public health and wildlife.

"The resources provided by the Great Salt Lake are something that has to be protected not just for waterfowl, but for future generations," Hart said.

To mitigate impacts to the area, the Utah Inland Port Authority is proposing to create "buffer zones" between development on the project site and wetlands. Any companies that build on the site must also agree to a wetland protection plan. The UIPA will also dictate that 3% of any tax differential handed out must be for wetland mitigation efforts.

"You start to get a sense for how do we create the right buffers and boundaries to make sure we’re protecting what should be protected and what’s available and should be and can be developed is able to be developed," Hart said.

But environmentalists question the logic of building a port so close to the lake. Even with the site being slated for industrial development, it has sat unused for decades. They are also skeptical of the Inland Port Authority's promises of a more environmentally friendly project.

Asked by FOX 13 News why they're doing so much wetlands mitigation when they could just not develop the area, Hart replied: "It’s a very good question. A lot of people feel like, 'Well, if the inland port goes away then all of this just stays the same.' That’s not true. The individual landowners up here are ready to develop. This is going to develop with or without the inland port."

On Utah's Capitol Hill, opponents of the project protested ahead of a meeting by the port authority board. Among them was Rhonda Lauritzen, who lives in Hooper near the proposed site.

"I'm not anti-development," she told FOX 13 News. "I get that we need some industrial parks. But this is nine thousand acres, right next to the Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area. It's sandwiched between Ogden Bay and the Harold Crane Management Area. It’s way too close and it’s way too big."

At the Utah Inland Port Authority Board's meeting, many of them spoke in opposition to the project, warning of harms from increased air pollution, over-development and threats to the Great Salt Lake. Weber County's economic development director spoke in favor of the project and believed it could be sustainable.

"This is an opportunity for us to actually build from the bottom up, a community that doesn’t have to out-migrate to Salt Lake and other areas to work and to live," said Stephanie Russell.

The board voted unanimously for the project. Environmental groups have told FOX 13 News they are exploring their options, including the potential for litigation.

Fox 13 Reporter
Ben Winslow is FOX 13's reporter on Capitol Hill covering a wide variety of topics including politics, polygamy, vice and courts. He has been in the news business in Utah for more than 20 years now, working in radio, newspaper, television and digital news. Winslow has received numerous honors for his reporting, including a national Edward R. Murrow award; the Religion Newswriters Association Local TV News Report of the Year; the Utah Broadcaster's Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Readers of Salt Lake City Weekly and Q Salt Lake have named him their "Best TV news reporter" for many years now. He co-hosts "Utah Booze News: An Alcohol Policy Podcast," covering the state's often confusing and quirky liquor laws. Winslow is also known for his very active Twitter account keeping Utahns up-to-date on important news.

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