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Gravel Rabble

An ancient sandbar becomes grounds for dispute in Tooele County.



Environmentalists rose up into a picketing frenzy in 2008 after the Bureau of Land Management issued drilling leases in southern Utah close to geologic treasures like Delicate Arch. With little fanfare, however, a less-charismatic geologic formation in Tooele County—a unique bluff that could unlock mysteries about the planet’s last great phase of global warming—soon could be turned into industrial rubble.

To naysayers, the Stockton Bar—an ancient sandbar and earthen dam created by Lake Bonneville—is just a bluff between the Oquirrh and Stansbury mountains, a pile of rocks and weeds that divides the Tooele and Rush valleys or, most disparagingly, “just dirt.”

Industrialists and the Utah Department of Transportation, however, see “the bar” as a valuable gravel pit, for which one company wanted to pay $6 million in 2000. At about 2 miles wide and more than 100 feet tall, Stockton Bar could provide gravel for road building throughout the Wasatch Front for decades.

But, geologists at the University of Utah and elsewhere see the Stockton Bar as a rocky well of information about the Pleistocene Ice Age. It could contain clues as to how the lake and ecosystem changed 18,000 years ago as ice melted away in warmer temperatures. That ancient information could be useful as contemporary Earth continues to warm, said U of U geologist Marjorie Chan.

“For science, a lot of times our ability to evaluate something gets better as we develop new techniques,” she said, “but if you’ve already destroyed the site, you can’t go back later. ... The bottom line is it’s a giant bar compared to most ancient lake deposits. It’s the largest and best of its kind in the entire Western Hemisphere.”

Former Tooele County School District board president and Stockton City Councilman Kendall Thomas has been central to the citizens’ “Save our Sandbar” committee, which opposes development of the bar.

“What are we going to do once all this is gone?” Thomas said. “You’re going to have to find more gravel, anyhow. My position, and everybody’s in town is, go find some other gravel, leave this. It’s like Delicate Arch: Should we tear down Delicate Arch because we can?”

The Stockton Bar, unlike Delicate Arch, doesn’t have high-profile protectors like Robert Redford, but in his stead are dozens of mostly Stockton residents who made T-shirts, jammed public meetings and recruited local lawmakers and academics to the “Save our Sandbar” cause. More than 85 people appeared for a public hearing regarding the rezone on July 14.

The bar already shows scars of human exploitation. One gravel pit has eaten away the bar’s easternmost portion and continues unabated. A bizarrely beautiful, orange-and-gray Superfund site of mine tailings from a bygone era— surrounded by scrub brush but barren itself for at least 60 years—sits just to the north of the bar.

Efforts to find a preservation purchaser of the bar have failed, Chan said, because it’s just not “sexy” or “glitzy” enough for most people—serious environmentalists included. She said she spoke years ago with conservation groups with fund-raising abilities to purchase land.

“They pretty much told us, ‘Our charter is not landscapes, but bio-community.’ Warm and fuzzy. Not dirt,” Chan said. “(Stockton Bar) doesn’t really fall within that realm.”

Without Redford or Ducks Unlimited as backup, the people of Stockton are mostly on their own.

Stockton, a town of roughly 500 people just a few miles south of Tooele, has a tough adversary: Salt Lake City-based Harper Companies, which employs 800, is the newest industrial force to covet the rocky profits to be found in Stockton Bar and is seeking a zoning permit from Tooele County.

But, Harper is not the first. Diamond B-Y Ranches, owned by a Tooele County businessman Gary Bolinder, sued the county in 2001 after the county refused them a conditional use permit to operate a gravel pit. The lawsuit sought compensation from Tooele County by arguing the county had fouled up Diamond’s $6-million deal with Geneva Rock Products, which only wanted the bar if they could dig gravel.

A district judge sided with the county, but the Utah Court of Appeals overturned the denial in 2004. Rather than continue the fight, the county settled with Diamond and issued the permit.

The gravel pit on the bar’s easternmost section today is operated by Altaview Concrete and Peak Construction Materials. Its permit allows the company to consume only the eastern portion of the bar.

Whether the rest of the bar will be rezoned to allow it to be consumed is currently before the Tooele County Commission. Each of the county commissioners is on record opposing a rezone but is leery of another lawsuit. The county is considering a land swap that would both soothe Harper and save the bar.

Some residents, including Thomas, think Harper deserves nothing, saying Harper’s purchase of the bar was a business gamble that simply might not pay off. But even Thomas is willing to accept a land swap if it will save the bar.

“Here [in Utah], personal property rights are always supreme,” complained committee member and retired Lutheran pastor John Sandstrom, who still works part-time at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City. “Community benefit should be almost as important.’’

It’s not just personal property, however. The Utah Department of Transportation received a portion of Stockton Bar in a land swap two years ago. Unlike private developers, UDOT’s hunger for gravel can’t be stopped with zoning regulations—state law entitles it to ignore such regs. UDOT spokesman Adan Carillo said UDOT isn’t interested in starting a fight nor does it have a particular interest in Stockton Bar gravel. UDOT would be willing to accept a land swap for another gravel pit in Tooele County.

“We’re just trying to protect the taxpayers’ investment,” Carillo said.

Adding to the environmental concerns is a degree of not-in-my-backyard resistance to developing a gravel pit. The pit property would— literally—abut back yards of homeowners in Stockton’s Rawhide subdivision. Stockton residents also worry about wind-pattern changes, water run-off effects and the possibility that the Superfund dirt on the other side of the bar would no longer have a natural barrier between it and town.

Harper declined to comment for this story, but company representatives have communicated with the citizen’s committee. A resolution has not been reached, but the next chapter will either be a land swap or Harper may get the rezone it wants.

“This guy is a salesman, he’s selling gravel,” Thomas said of Harper Companies owner Rulon Harper. “He wants to work with our committee to see ‘what can we do to compromise.’ And one of our committee members just says, ‘We ain’t compromising.’ I say that same thing … If you take any gravel out, you’ve ruined the sandbar, what’s left of it. That’s the fight.”

Reporter's Links:

The 2004 Utah Court of Appeals ruling regarding the Stockton Bar and Diamond B-Y Ranch

Federal data that shows Earth is warming

University of Utah Department of Geology┬╣s Geoantiquities Website which further explains the formation of Stockton Bar, and it's import

A map of Stockton, the Stockton Bar, and surrounding area. Although not all the labels are 100 percent correct, the area on the map shaded as the Stockton Bar is about right.