Protect the jetty: State should prevent drilling that could harm artwork

Tribune Editorial

Article Last Updated: 02/19/2008 06:41:38 PM MST


If the Spiral Jetty did not exist today in the northwest arm of the Great Salt Lake, it's fair to say that environmental groups might oppose an artist's plan to build it. After all, the world-famous basalt and earth sculpture is 1,500 feet long, coiling into the ancient lake bed in a most unnatural way.
But we're grateful the artwork does exist and has now for nearly 40 years, becoming encrusted with salt, appearing above and dropping beneath the lake's surface as the lake level rises and falls. And environmentalists are working hard to protect it.
Completed by Robert Smithson in 1970, it has become a well-known icon of Utah and the lake, and photographs of the huge sculpture have appeared all over the world.
Now the unusual piece of art is threatened by oil drilling rigs that the state is set to allow on 55,000 acres in the lake's Little Valley Harbor, five miles southwest of Rozel Point where the Spiral Jetty lies. Compromising the aesthetic image now would be putting the extraction industry above art in a most disturbing manner.
The state should refuse to give a Canadian drilling company permits to erect rigs close enough to the Spiral Jetty to ruin its photographic image or its aesthetic value for visitors who view it up close.
The proposal to drill for oil so close to the jetty surprised artists and conservationists, including Western Resource Advocates, the Sierra Club's Utah chapter, Friends of Great Salt Lake and Great Salt Lake Audubon, who negotiated a settlement with the state two years ago to protect it.
The Canadian company's lease was granted before the settlement was reached.
The groups were not notified of the pending permit to drill, as the settlement required. A member of a conservation group just happened to notice it on the Web site for the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.
It would be almost unheard-of to revoke a drilling lease, but it could be done if the operator violates the lease terms, or if the state decides there is an "imminent significant irreversible threat to the public trust."
Honoring this lease, never mind the harmful effects it could have on the Spiral Jetty and despite agreeing to protect the art icon, would be dishonoring the public trust.