Could Utah children help shape the destiny of the ailing Great Salt Lake?

Apr 20, 2022, 7:59 PM | Updated: Jun 20, 2022, 1:36 pm

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late.

To save the Great Salt Lake is to know its worth. To know its worth is to be educated about why it matters.

For 16 years, The Nature Conservancy has introduced the value of the Great Salt Lake and its vast wetlands and uplands to 22,000 fourth graders from six school districts.

Called Wings & Water, the program is among many educational outreach efforts offered by varying groups to get youth acquainted with the unique ecological features offered by the largest saline lake in the Western Hemisphere and the eighth largest in the world.

“Wings & Water is one way to get those students out there to create a relationship with the lake. I do think these students revisit and have a sense of place with the Great Salt Lake,” said Andrea Nelson, community outreach coordinator with The Nature Conservancy.

This week marks the official return of the program after a two-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Education equals enlightenment

A busload of children from Davis County visited Tuesday, and on Wednesday, 80 students from Creekside Elementary were able to explore the marshes and the visitor center at the conservancy’s 4,400-acre Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve in west Layton on the eastern shores of the Great Salt Lake.

The lake is shrinking, having reached its historic low last year. More than 800 square miles of lakebed have been exposed and a critical, complex ecosystem is in trouble.

As the lake struggles, so does the industry it supports, the millions of birds that visit, and its economic might of $1.3 billion in annual contributions to Utah’s economy is in jeopardy.

Nelson said she believes educational outreach programs like Wings & Water leave an ecological imprint on young minds.

“When we take them out on that one-mile boardwalk right in the middle of the wetlands, the frogs are singing and the sandhill cranes are flying over and singing — that is the idea, to build this relationship with the Great Salt Lake and its watersheds.”

Marissa Joann Hardy is young proof of that success.

“I loved seeing all the birds flying and the other stuff living in this habitat,” she said during her visit Wednesday. “I hate that people destroy it. I hate it. I don’t like it. I think you just build a little, keep it half nature and half of what it is now. … That is what God created.”

She added more people should visit the Great Salt Lake, to learn like she is learning.

“I really think they should see nature and leave it how it is.”

Katharine Hayhoe, The Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist and the United Nations selection as the U.N. Champion of the Earth in 2019, visited the preserve Wednesday with the schoolchildren.

She told the Deseret News it is critical to get people, especially young people, tuned into nature.

The intersection of nature and people

“It’s very important because we are all part of nature. All too often we like to think of ourselves as separate, like there is nature and then there are humans. But where does the air that we breathe come from? Where does the water we drink come from? Where does the food that we eat come from? Where does everything we use to make everything we have come from?” Hayhoe said.

“It is important to recognize that our health depends on the health of the planet.”

She said that too often, climate change, saving for retirement or even having the right diet and exercising like we should are issues that people put at a psychological distance — to think about later. Or, they think climate change is happening over there, not here.

“But when we see things like the Great Salt Lake drying up right in front of our eyes, it’s no longer over there, it’s here. It’s no longer in the future.”

She said children, when exposed to nature, often understand its value much more readily than adults because they lack preconceived notions and the layers of culture and ideology that develop over time.

“Kids understand that intuitively, this is important, that it matters.”

A sense of place

Carla Trentelman did her dissertation on the Great Salt Lake derived from input from more than 400 research participants in Davis and Weber counties.

“Overall, the folks who had the most experience and the most involvement with the lake also had the most attachment with the lake, feeling that it was a place that needed to be protected, a place they wanted to spend time with.”

Trentelman, a professor of sociology at Ogden’s Weber State University, said she absolutely believes that early experiences with the lake will help guide solutions to its troubling condition.

“In the research that stood out, the more involvement participants had as kids, the stronger their connections were with the lake,” she said. “People’s eyes, when they tell stories about wandering the Great Salt Lake area, the wetlands, the shoreline, getting in the water, that whole complex, their eyes would get a sparkle in them and you could tell how important that was.”

The disconnect with tech

But getting out in nature is happening less frequently for the generations hooked on screen time.

Florence Williams, author of “The Nature Fix,” explored the physical, social and mental benefits from spending time outdoors — research inspired by her own move to Washington, D.C., from Colorado.

“I was blown away by the human noise,” she recalled in an interview in 2020, adding the metropolitan area was like an urban moonscape with no children playing outside.

Her findings underscore the need to connect children, especially, with the outdoors and the great value of it provides not only for personal well-being but increased awareness and appreciation for the places they visit.

Unfortunately, she said her research revealed that American children spend about half as much time outdoors as their parents did.

She pointed out one survey that noted 72 percent of a group of mothers responded they went outside every day as children. Yet among that same group of mothers, only 26 percent said their children get that same experience.

‘Follow the science’

Research around the globe, however, underscores the value of getting that connection to nature and how it develops those protective attitudes.

A study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2019 explored the potential benefits of a four-hour nature experience on children’s mood, pro-sociality and attitudes toward nature. Eighty students from an urban Canadian elementary school were recruited to participate in field trips to a nature school and an aviation/space museum.

The Ottawa-based Carleton University research found children reported more positive and negative emotions, a closer connection to nature and a greater willingness to protect nature when at the nature school.

Another study led by German researchers looked at the cultural background of refugees based on seven distinct geographic regions who were attending German schools to determine if culture had an impact on their connection to nature.

They found that the cultural background of students did not impact what they called “Inclusion of Nature in Self” but time spent in forests did, boosting that connectivity.

Constraints of education

But The Nature Conservancy’s Wings & Water program is not without its limitations, and it is not the panacea for the Great Salt Lake. It is a step.

The global organization only has the money to reach a certain amount of fourth graders in two time-sensitive windows of the year — in April and May and September and October — for visits to the Great Salt Lake.

The organization relies on a lot of fundraising with its partner, the Utah State University Botanical Gardens, and it simply does not have enough staff.

It is among many organizations, such as Friends of the Great Salt Lake and the Natural History Museum of Utah, working in this realm of education.

“These places have complicated and dynamic ecosystems that deserve our awareness. The Great Salt Lake is having a really hard time,” Nelson said.

The other obstacle? It is going to take years for these children to grow up and help chart the destiny of the Great Salt Lake, which is flailing now. Is there enough time?

She hopes so.

“Kids who live along the Wasatch Front who have a relationship to the Great Salt Lake, some of them will end up being our water managers, ecologists and scientists. That’s important.”

As a feature of the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, readers are invited to take this survey to better inform the reporting in this initiative.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

Great Salt Lake


Sunday Edition: House Speaker Vote, GSL Bills, Utah’s New State Flag

This week on Sunday Edition, we look at the new congress in Washington, D.C. and the divided House Republicans who struggled for days to elect a new House speaker, Utah lawmakers to take bold action to save the Great Salt Lake, and tate lawmakers will have the final vote on the new design for the new state flag.
18 hours ago
Tooele sunrise...
Carter Williams,

Snow advisories could bring up to 14 inches of snow Friday night

The snow is back, yet again. The National Weather Service issued a winter weather advisory for the Wasatch Mountains, where 6 to 14 inches or more of snow is forecast between Friday and Saturday. It remains in effect through late Saturday afternoon.
6 days ago
(L-R) Zach Frankel, Sen. Nate Blouin, Rep. Joel Briscoe on Jan. 25, 2023. (KSL TV)...
Jed Boal

Lawmakers unveil a pair of bills aimed at restoring the Great Salt Lake

Two Utah lawmakers unveiled a pair of bills aimed at protecting and restoring an optimal water level in the Great Salt Lake. One bill would establish a restoration level for the lake, and the other would raise money to continue the work. 
8 days ago
The tour looks at a crystal formation that would normally be covered by the Great Salt Lake waters....
Alex Cabrero

Great Salt Lake tour showcases the shrinking lake and what is being uncovered

Tours of the shrinking Great Salt Lake uncover hidden crystal formations, shipwrecks, and unknown secrets that were lost to time.
19 days ago
Great Salt Lake...
Alex Cabrero

Recent storms increase the Great Salt Lake’s water levels

In trying to save the Great Salt Lake, there is a long way to go. However, finally, there is a little bit of a reason to smile.
21 days ago
FILE: The receding waters of The Great Salt Lake are easy to see from Chopper 5. (KSL TV)...
Leia Larsen, The Salt Lake Tribune

Great Salt Lake set to vanish in 5 years, experts warn Utah lawmakers in dire report

Utah has months to reverse the lake's decline before it's too late, according to a dire report.
28 days ago

Sponsored Articles

vintage photo of lighting showroom featuring chandeliers, lamps, wall lights and mirrors...
Lighting Design

History of Lighting Design | Over 25 Years of Providing Utah With the Latest Trends and Styles

Read about the history of Lighting Design, a family-owned and operated business that paved the way for the lighting industry in Utah.
Fiber Optical cables connected to an optic ports and Network cables connected to ethernet ports...
Brian Huston, CE and Anthony Perkins, BICSI

Why Every Business Needs a Structured Cabling System

A structured cabling system benefits businesses by giving you faster processing speeds and making your network more efficient and reliable.
notebook with password notes highlighted...
PC Laptops

How to Create Strong Passwords You Can Actually Remember

Learn how you can create strong passwords that are actually easy to remember! In a short time you can create new ones in seconds.
house with for rent sign posted...
Chase Harrington, president and COO of Entrata

Top 5 Reasons You May Want to Consider Apartment Life Over Owning a Home

There are many benefits of renting that can be overshadowed by the allure of buying a home. Here are five reasons why renting might be right for you.
Festive kitchen in Christmas decorations. Christmas dining room....
Lighting Design

6 Holiday Decor Trends to Try in 2022

We've rounded out the top 6 holiday decor trends for 2022 so you can be ahead of the game before you start shopping. 
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to Choose What MBA Program is Right for You: Take this Quiz Before You Apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Could Utah children help shape the destiny of the ailing Great Salt Lake?