Proposed prison site next door to delicate bird habitat, environmentalists say

Posted at 6:59 PM, Aug 14, 2015
and last updated 2015-08-14 20:59:43-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- Look up the Gillmor Audubon Sanctuary on Google Maps, and you're out of luck--but it's a 3,000-acre habitat protected by the world's best known advocates for birds: the Audubon Society.

"It's like Europe in Columbus's day; it's like you drop off the edge of the Earth, it's not there," says Ella Sorensen, who's devoted 25 years to managing, improving and expanding the sanctuary.

It's not on maps because it's not a public place. It's chained off from the general public to maintain the solitude preferred by the Ibis, Grebes, Avocets, Black necked stilts and the 253 other birds who make their home on the Great Salt Lake.

But FOX 13 News got a look behind the gates, rolling down miles of dirt track, along the old river delta formed by the Jordan River, dry for nearly three millennia.

The drive is broken up by stretches of fresh water, drawn from century-old canals, and protected in part to mitigate the destruction of wetlands caused by building the international airport to the east and Kennecott's smelting operations to the west.

Along with FOX 13 News, Jaimi Butler of the Great Salt Lake Institute toured the Sanctuary for the first time and remarked on the solitude.

"There's almost three million people on the Wasatch Front just right there," Butler said. "Right on the shores of this national treasure."

Sorensen sid she can't talk about the lake without "resorting to superlatives."

"The world's largest breeding population of white-faced ibis, the world's largest staging area for marbled godwits, the largest breeding area for snowy plover," she said.

There's approximately 12 birds where the largest concentration in the world is on the Great Salt Lake.

Sorensen calls herself a "recluse," but said she's come out of hiding because she feels like debates over locating the state prison have ignored the birds.

"Our concerns with development has to do with the height of the buildings, the water, the storm flow, and the mosquitos," Sorensen said.

Mosquito abatement entered the conversation as a concern on a prison site so close to the lake, and it's an issue that could put the prison in direct competition with the birds.

"The shorebirds eat insects, and if you put a 4,000-bed prison next to us, then there's going to be a perceived ever-increasing need for more abatement," Sorensen said.

Sorensen said the Prison Relocation Commission visited her sanctuary, and their chief consultant, Bob Nardi, has had lengthy, respectful conversations with her--so it may be possible to build a bird friendly design, but she won't settle for anything less.

"At this point we have been listened to and it's an ongoing discussion, and we'll just see where it goes: We make no promises," Sorensen said.