It’s not very often that political issues are brought up in car magazines beyond the Editor’s Page. We’ve reached such a significant point in time, however, when the gloves have come off and we as hot rodders and Americans have no choice but to look Washington in the eye and not blink.

The cold fact is, the Bonneville Salt Flats (BSF) are vanishing. Not in the “save some endangered microbe” kind of way, but in the “not gonna be around at all in a couple years” kind of way. It’s hard to imagine a place so vast and covered with so much white on the surface as being endangered, but the truth is there’s no more than 3 inches of salt crust left on the surface and most of the racing area is less than an inch thick.

The good news is, as this article goes to press, the racing community, through the Save the Salt Coalition is working with the mine owner, Intrepid Potash Wendover, to save BSF. The details are still being finalized, but the parties have pledged to join forces to permanently reinstate a salt replenishment program. Salt removed from Bonneville to obtain potash will be replaced in the same amount, or more.

The history of land speed racing at Bonneville goes back almost 100 years to 1914 when Teddy Tezlaff set the first land speed record there driving a Blitzen Benz to a speed of 141.73 mph. The Flats proved to be the perfect place for land speed trials, and by 1949 the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) organized the first Speed Week as an annual gathering of those looking to push the boundaries of automotive and motorcycle performance.

Legends like Mickey Thompson, Art Arfons, and Craig Breedlove staked their claims in the history books there, and more than 600 have added their names to the famed 200-mph club roster. It is the rarest of places where, in the two-mile-long pit area, a rookie with a 130-mph banger can be pitted next to a multimillion-dollar entry, borrow tools or parts back and forth, share water and snacks, and have the time of their life without any class snobbery. It is truly the last and best form of amateur racing where the only prize is a piece of paper or a red hat. That rare place is now disappearing.

The BSF is part of an ancient lake basin which is filled with salt deposits. Much of the land, including the BSF, is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In the early 20th century, the racing community discovered that the salt surface was perfect for setting land speed records. Mining companies also discovered that salt from the BSF and other areas of the basin could be processed to remove potash and other valuable minerals—which only amount to about 2.7 percent of the total salt. The two activities worked in harmony for generations until it was observed that salt from the BSF was being depleted.

During the recently completed Speed Week, PHR had a chance to talk with longtime Bonneville racer and Save the Salt Coalition member, Russ Eyres. Eyres has been coming to the land speed mecca for 50 odd years and has personally seen the transformation. “The BLM’s geologists admit that there was a map that shows the zones of thickness, and the main thickness of what we call the Race Surface Playa. At one time, the thickest spot was 6 feet. Then as you went off to the edge, it got down to a foot thick and they didn’t bother to measure anything thinner than that. Now there isn’t a place anywhere where we race that is more than 3 inches thick. Anywhere. The salt that we’re standing on [in the pit area] is only about ¾-inch thick. That salt out there [on the five-mile-long course where a streamliner just passed by at 280 mph] is about 5/8-inch thick and is so chewed up we’ll have to move the course at the end of today.” As the conversation continued, it was clear from the enthusiasm of those in and around Eyres’ pit, this was a very personal and emotional matter.

The truth is, potash mining plays an important role in the American economy. Potash is a critical component in fertilizer, which accounts for about 85 percent of its use. It is also used in aluminum recycling, industrial water treatment, fire extinguishers, and a number of other industries. At issue is the need to provide a harmonious environment for mining and racing.

The BLM noticed a degradation of the BSF as early as 1952. To its credit, the BLM has removed over 104,000 acres from mineral mining of potash, salts, and other salines in the BSF area. Nevertheless, the BSF continued to shrink in size and depth over the coming decades.

In 1997, the racing community worked with the previous owner to solve the problem. Understanding the historical importance of the BSF, the mine owner pursued a five-year salt lay down replenishment program. Once they had extracted the potash from the briny salt mixture, the leftover salt brine would be pumped back to the BSF where it would dissolve in the waters that cover the basin during the wet season. Fresh salt crystals would form as the surface water evaporated during the hot months and salt water from the underground aquifer would percolate to the surface.

During the five-year program, the Salt Flats increased in thickness and hardness and the project significantly improved the aquifer, which supports the salt crust volume. A BLM report credited the program with replacing the 4.2 million tons of salt estimated to have been removed during the five-year project, while providing a net addition of 2 million tons of salt to the shallow brine aquifer.

That project’s success was only half the story. It also demonstrated that the racing community, potash mining industry, and BLM could work collectively toward common goals. Unfortunately, when the five-year agreement expired, the BLM did not extend the agreement to the successor mining company, Intrepid. To its credit, Intrepid voluntarily continued a salt replenishment program, and now having become aware of the plight of the BSF, wants to partner with the racing community and BLM on a permanent program.

Putting the issue in context, Eyres observed the importance of joining forces. “They are the largest potash producer in the United States. Potash is important for fertilizer. It’s important for food supplements. We simply want to partner on a replenishment program to restore the BSF to its previous condition. If we don’t fix it, in five years there won’t be enough salt left to have another Speed Week.”

As Intrepid steps forward to implement a program, it is useful to consider the BLM’s role. For generations it has not met its responsibility to protect an area designated as both a “National Landmark,” a “Special Recreation Management Area” and an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern.” These designations require the BLM to take appropriate actions to preserve this unique visual, historic, and geological resource.

Eyres says, “They’ve been telling us since 2001 that they are reviewing the current mining plan. This is 2011—10 years later. During the intervening time, they have refused to allow us to review documents or assure us that an upcoming Environmental Assessment (EA) will provide adequate protection.” The draft EA is supposed to be issued in the immediate future, providing the first opportunity for public review and comment.

As noted, a number of prominent racing community organizations have formed the “Save the Salt Coalition” to work with Intrepid and the BLM. An agreement with Intrepid is forthcoming, but some intransigence on the part of the BLM remains.

The Coalition contends that for decades, the BLM has neglected its obligations under law to protect the Salt Flats. The Coalition is now seeking tangible action. Here are two examples of how the BLM can help fix the problem: 1) Dedicate all monies received from leasing fees, licenses, or other funds toward restoration of the Bonneville Salt Flats; and 2) Identify other sources of high quality salt that can be transported and deposited on the Salt Flats. These steps will help the BSF retain its position as the most beautiful, unique, and fastest place on earth.

Get Involved!

You can help Save the Salt by visiting the SEMA Action Network website (www.SEMASAN.com) and clicking on the “Save the Salt” link (www.SaveTheSalt.com). You’ll find easy and quick ways to contact your local, state, and federal representatives as well as the director of the BLM. Send them a short message telling them who you are and that the BLM needs to take immediate action to restore the Salt Flats. The whole deal takes literally about two minutes, and you’ll have made a huge difference. While you’re there, make sure you also check the details on current salt conditions, history, coalition members, and donation information.

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