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Increased visitors, drought creating problems for Utah's famous Spiral Jetty

Posted at 5:07 PM, May 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-14 19:38:03-04

CORRINE, Utah — State officials and supporters of the arts are becoming increasingly concerned about damage around one of Utah's most famous art pieces.

The Spiral Jetty, a unique piece of land art created on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake, is more exposed than ever because of low water levels. With increased visitation, the area around it is experiencing increased problems.

The artwork was created in 1970 by Robert Smithson. The 1,500 foot long, 15-foot wide coil is made of basalt rock and earth extending from Rozel Point. In the past, the artwork has been covered by the Great Salt Lake and when the water recedes it creates a scenic landscape of water, rock and salt. To get there, you have to drive a couple of hours north of Salt Lake City and some distance on a rough dirt road.

Sharon and Ed Matt took a trip to the site on a Friday afternoon to walk out on the art piece and beyond to the water line of the Great Salt Lake.

"It’s not what I would have thought when I think of sculpture," said Sharon Matt.

Added Ed: "It’s great to be able to go out there, touch, get on, move around a piece of art like that."

Matthew Coombs, the Sovereign Lands Coordinator for Utah's Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands said it used to be you maybe saw one or two cars out at the Spiral Jetty in a day.

"Early last year, as many as a hundred cars an hour," he said in an interview Friday with FOX 13.

The waters of the Great Salt Lake receding around the Spiral Jetty are creating some issues of their own for Utah's Department of Natural Resources, which helps manage the site. There's naturally-occuring tar that is bubbling up from the lake bed. Near the jetty is the remains of an old oil rig from a long-abandoned project.

"It’s kind of akin to the La Brea Tar Pits but there’s no pit. So it just flows out on the surface and disperses. With lake being low, it’s dispersed in these areas," said Mark Milligan with the Utah Geological Survey, taking a shovel and sticking it into oozing black tar that is spreading out.

Occasionally, Utah's Department of Natural Resources will get a phone call from someone reporting an "oil spill" at the Great Salt Lake. They have to explain it's naturally occurring. But animals are also getting stuck in it now that the water has receded and it can't be dispersed. When FOX 13 visited the site, the remains of pelicans were trapped in the tar.

"There’s been dogs unfortunately that have been stuck in here and it’s tough to get them out," said Milligan. "It gets stuck on your clothes, your shoes. I would be very careful with small children because it gets everywhere and it’s really hard to remove."

Westminster College has set up cameras on the tar to monitor its progress as part of a research study. Nearby is another natural phenomenon — crystals created from the salty lake bed.

"You get crystal growth in the mud and people have discovered that and have come out to look for them and hunt for them," Milligan said. "Which Forestry, Fire & State Lands isn’t excited about."

It is illegal to remove the crystals from the lake bed, but there was evidence of it happening all over. People have dug pits to find bigger and bigger crystals.

"Given the drought those holes just kind of stay there and create a hazard and visual impact," Coombs said.

The Utah Geological Survey's Milligan said the Great Salt Lake itself has shrunk by 11-feet already as a result of development along the Wasatch Front and the drought. Right now, the lake is the most full it will probably be all year.

There are also signs that vehicles have driven out onto the dry lake bed and gotten stuck. State lands officials recently confronted a couple who had driven out onto the Spiral Jetty itself to take photos (which is also illegal).

"We’re not out here trying to come down on people who are out here with their families, or out here to enjoy the area," said Coombs. "But as we’ve seen increased visitation, we’ve seen a lot of that kind of activity."

The New York-based Dia Art Foundation, which owns the Spiral Jetty, asks visitors to leave no trace and respect the work. The Utah Museum of Fine Art, which helps to manage the site, said it is concerned with the increased visitation causing damage to the art installation.

"We are concerned about the impact of the drought on the ecosystems of the lake, on the people living in close proximity, and on the earthwork. As more and more people become aware of the significance of Smithson’s earthwork in our backyard, Spiral Jetty is seeing increased visitation, and with the drought and water diversion projects revealing more of lakebed, the earthwork is more exposed," UMFA Senior Curator Whitney Tassie said in an email to FOX 13.

The Spiral Jetty was designed to reflect people's changing relationship with water and the environment, Tassie said, so it doesn't require a static environment. However, she said they do want people to be respectful of it.

"We encourage visitors to ‘leave no trace’ at the site, which means leaving the artwork and surrounding natural environment as you found it. This includes not removing existing rocks from the artwork, as well as carrying your waste out with you. Ultimately, our goal is to preserve the artwork and landscape for future generations," Tassie wrote.

Coombs said most visitors are respectful of the art piece and the Great Salt Lake landscape. You can walk out on it and on the lake bed itself. But Utah's Department of Natural Resources is increasing its presence out at the site to help protect it, and considering additional infrastructure to handle more visitors.

"Leave it as good or better than you found it," Coombs said.