By Ray Wheeler
Draft, June 18, 2012
Thanks to the vision and leadership of Salt Lake City’s new Parks and Public Lands director, Emy Maloutas, the Glendale and Poplar Grove neighborhoods may soon be the site of a new native plant and streambank restoration project on City-owned land along the Jordan River at 900 South. Over a half million Utah residents participated in such activities,
The proposed 7-acre restoration area, encompassing a river bend called the “Ninth South Oxbow”, is the missing link in a potential park complex of 60 acres. The project, funded with $383,000 from a Chevron oil spill damage mitigation funds, will remove non-native vegetation, replacing it with native grasses, wildlfowers, shrubs and trees. It will regrade parts of the stream bank to enhance natural stream function, and it will upgrade a small area of wetlands at the western terminus of 900 South street to provide better natural filtration of storm water from city streets.
Very few communities in all of Utah are as richly endowed with public park lands as the Glendale neighborhood where I happen to live. Directly across the river from my house lies the 11-acre International Peace Gardens, one of just two parks in the entire U.S. devoted entirely to two radical ideas: ethnic diversity and world peace. Organized by the Salt Lake City Council of Women at the close of World War II , the park’s architectural features and landscape design represent the cultures of 27 foreign countries that have thriving ethnic groups in Salt Lake City. Its lush flower beds, ornamental trees, miniature foreign landscapes and evocative sculptures are a magnet for photographers as well as well as for neighborhood families. Rarely during summer months do I look out my kitchen window without seeing a bride and groom posing for wedding pictures on the Peace Park boat dock.
Surrounding the Peace Park on the east and south, 33-acre Jordan Park is a recreational mecca featuring baseball diamonds, tennis and volleyball courts, horseshoe pits, a skate park, a dog park, and two large picnic pavilions. During summer months the park hosts one of our now-iconic West Side traditions: the People’s Market.
To the south and upstream lie the 2-acre Modesto Park and 2-acre “Bend in the River” parks, and to the north lies, the 4.5 acre 9th South River Park downstream and to the north, the 11-acre International Peace Gardens to the east, and 33 acre Jordan Park along 900 West.
With such abundance of recreational and cultural amenities, do we need another park?
Some members of our Glendale Community Council have advocated for housing, a public facility, or a shopping center to be built on the Oxbow site. At one time it was evaluated as a possible site for the new Glendale library.
But for all of our park land there is one kind recreational amenity that the West Side does not have: natural open space. In this respect our communities are much like the neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota, where I grew up. Like most large metropolitan areas there no habitat whatsoever for wildlife and nowhere that natural communities of plants and animals can thrive. As a kid, the only place within walking or biking distance where I could go to explore the natural world was an abandoned city dump, above which, on a wooded bluff, there was a thin strip of forest laced with trails.
Most of us do not know that along the Jordan River in Salt Lake Valley—as throughout most of urban North America-- native grasses, shrubs and trees are as scarce as native wildlife. Well over 90 percent of the trees along the river are not natural in the “uplands riparian” ecosystem of the Jordan River. Siberian Elm and Russian Olive trees, which overwhelmingly dominate the riverbanks, are not even native to our continent. Impenetrable groves of spiky Russian Thistle thrive in the thin strip of land between the river and the Jordan Parkway bike trail. After a century and a half of continual stripping of native plants by humans, native plant communities have been all but obliterated. Non-native plants and animals, separated from the biological predators with which they coevolved, can easily outcompete native plants which are favored food sources of native animals. (See companion article by Misty Brown.)
No less than any of our ethnic groups; no less than the Mormon Pioneers, Utah’s native plant and animal communities are vital part of our history and our national heritage. We are incredibly fortunate to have winding through the heart of our neighborhoods river that runs directly along the axis of an international flyway for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. Between Utah Lake and the Great Salt Lake this avian this great river of life flows across Salt Lake Valley. In winter months we find great flocks of Canadian geese on the Glendale golf course not because between the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake, these great birds have no other suitable place to rest and feed.
Our kids deserve more than parking lots, condo blocks, shopping centers and office buildings. They deserve opportunities to explore the natural world, to learn in wonder the beauty and power of wildlife, to watch fish swimming in clear pools, to hear the music of native song birds, to see century-old trees and luxuriant meadows of native grasses and flowers.
Our schools should feature outdoor classrooms where kids can learn not just to identify native plants and animals, but also, how to protect and restore some of the splendor of wild America.
Those who advocate for maximum industrial, residential and agricultural development of every single acre of public or private land, often justify such behavior on the grounds that it fosters economic development, thus enriching both business owners and local governments who profit directly from retail sales tax.
But advocates for commercial development of open space never mention that preservation and restoration of wildlife habitat also has immense economic benefits, especially to the communities nearest to the protected areas. U.S. Census data reveals that as of the last census in 2006, total revenues to Utah businesses from wildlife-related recreation (fishing, hunting, and wildlife watching), were $1.3 billion—a total dwarfing that of most other businesses. Interestingly, 63% of this total was from wildlife “watchers” as opposed to hunters or anglers. Over 1 million residents and non residents enjoy wildlife-related recreation here annually—with 437,000 of them traveling here from out of state, thus greatly enriching our economy.
Throughout the past 50 years countless studies by Universities, government agencies and land trust organizations have shown that preservation of open space, and especially, natural open space, increases property values for nearby land owners by about 20%, on average.
Who wouldn’t want a large nature park in one’s back yard? Perhaps some homeowners prefer dense urban hardscape to trees and flowers, but business owners seem powerfully drawn to build their headquarters on park-like campuses adjacent to greenways and natural areas.
Over 90 percent of the land in Salt Lake Valley has already been occupied with pavement and buildings. But here on Salt Lake City’s West side, we still have a few pockets of undeveloped land along our city’s only river. Rivers are natural highways for wildlife of every kind, providing abundant forage, shelter and nesting opportunities. Riparian ecosystems are the single most valuable asset for wildlife preservation and restoration.
If as I do, you have strong opinions regarding this project, you’ll have an opportunity to do so in public comment meetings to be hosted by the City Parks department some time this fall (confirm dates)