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The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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UMNH construction could affect ecosystem

By Isabella Bravo, Staff Writer

The construction of the new Utah Museum of Natural History has stirred outrage from environmentalists and open space advocates for constructing the new building on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, a piece of natural history that runs along the former shoreline of the ancient Lake Bonneville.

Construction of the museum has impacted the local wildlife, insects and plants and has been well-documented by the museum’s staff.

The trail begins at the Utah-Idaho border and runs uninterrupted through Spanish Fork Canyon and Santaquin, Utah County. Dave Roth, a representative for the Bonneville Shoreline Trail Committee, said hundreds of joggers, off-leash dogs, mountain bikers and other visitors frequent the Red Butte Creek segment of the trail, which currently runs through the museum’s construction site.

Because of construction, the trail committee and the museum agreed to build an alternate trail above the construction site and maintain the original path once the building is complete.

“The committee is frustrated in general (with) losing the open space,” Roth said. “The U did agree to preserve the trail and the museum will offer exciting ways to integrate the trail and Red Butte.”

Sarah George, executive director of the museum, said that after searching for a new location for the museum in Research Park, downtown, on campus and in the valley, the site on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail offers the most opportunities for integrating natural history into the architecture of the building. George described the extensive planning of the new building and its surroundings as a way to allow visitors to have an integrated outdoor and indoor experience. The final building will have three terraces that will lead visitors to outside extensions of the exhibits.

“One terrace is land formations and on the outside, we’ll have big boulders,” George said. “Another terrace will show plants and outside we’ll have native plants growing.”

Roth said the museum’s new building demonstrates the encroachment of Research Park on the nearby wilderness.

“(The museum) is better than some office building,” he said.

U biology professor John Sperry has been an outspoken critic of the new location of the museum.

“The museum administration’s rationale that if we didn’t build there, then there would be another building, has two things wrong with it,” Sperry said. “One, technically this is Research Park land. The U has the ability to say, “We don’t want to build here.’ Two, this is an inherently non-sustainable philosophy. It’s that philosophy that has got us where we are. This was opportunity for the U to set an example on how to stop foothill development.”

Patti Carpenter, a spokeswoman for the museum, said the land would have either gone to the museum or two health sciences buildings.

Despite the alteration to the area, efforts have been made to preserve some natural elements of the construction site. Museum staff members have worked throughout the planning and construction process to ensure that many of the native plants and insects were preserved.


As a botanist, Sperry is concerned that the fragile ecosystem on the eastern benches is falling to city development. Sperry said the surrounding scrub, oak and savanna are on their way to becoming endangered.

“It’s been paved over by encroachment of Salt Lake City,” Sperry said.

The Beckwith’s violet is an example of the consequences of development.

“The little yellow violet is a plant species that has been marginalized,” Sperry said.

In the museum’s herbatorium, Ann Kelsey, the botany collection manager, has samples of the Beckwith’s violet dating back to the 1880s when the violet grew freely in Salt Lake City and on neighboring bench areas. The Beckwith’s violet has no known wild populations. In 2006, Kelsey suspected the possibility that the violet was growing at the future construction site of the museum. She and other staff members surveyed the area for two seasons, once in 2006 and 2008, and found no trace of the violet.

In addition to the violet surveys, Kelsey also conducted about three months of native plant salvage and soil and seed collection before the groundbreaking. She, along with the Utah Native Plant Association, Kelsey’s retired sister and other museum staff members, volunteered their time to save sego lily bulbs. They also preserved Kelsey’s personal favorite, needle-and-thread grass, from the building construction.

Kelsey said that the land there was not pristine and many of the land formations in the area are man-made. In its military days, Fort Douglas used the foothill area for training and trench building. Kelsey said the frequent use of the area by off-leash dogs, joggers and mountain bikers has brought foreign plant species to the area and compacted the soil along the trail, which makes it inhospitable for future plant growth.

Kelsey said she is excited for the opportunity to transplant the salvaged native plants that have been pushed out in the past. Broomrape is a parasitic plant that lives on sagebrush on the benches. It can rarely be spotted now, but Kelsey gathered some broomrape and baby sagebrush and, with the help of fellow museum staff, is in the process of germinating it for transplant after the construction.

“We lost some balsam root,” Kelsey said. “We lost oaks. We lost sage and bitterbrush. We’ve also lost invasives.”

Kelsey took an elementary school class to the construction site last year.

“I don’t teach,” she said. “I just say, “Let’s go look.’ We’re all born with the ability to observe. I’m there to help them to remember to do that. Give them the confidence that they can trust their own observation skills.”

Kelsey said that aspect can be used with the indoor-outdoor integration of the new museum.

“In the long run, I don’t like to see the loss of open space,” Kelsey said.

Kelsey said the museum needs a new building after she had some close calls almost losing some of her plant specimens in the current museum building. The herbatorium is housed in the basement. The bulk of the plants are collected in paper folders, with water and heating pipes running along the ceiling only a few inches above them. In recent years, Kelsey has seen two water leaks that have nearly ruined the plant documents.

“I had to hang shower curtains so no water was going onto the folders,” she said.

Kelsey pointed at the ceiling and said, “A new building is necessary. That’s true. The hole has been dug.”


Christy Bills, the museum’s entomologist, has spent many nights collecting native species of bugs and spiders to save them before the building’s construction. She doesn’t know what will happen to the insects with the new construction.

“Many of the bugs follow the plants, so if certain plants are missing, they’ll be gone too,” Bills said. “As we all know, some insects and spiders learn to live with humans just fine, like houseflies and cockroaches. Others don’t do as well. It’s hard to say what will happen with the new building.”

Bills said that she gathered two female Aphonopelma iodius8212;Utah’s only native tarantula8212;Jerusalem crickets, velvet ants, house centipedes and pinacate beetles. Similar to Kelsey’s plan with the salvaged native plants, Bills will restore the saved insects once the construction period is over. Until then, the bugs will live out their days in the museum’s live insect exhibit, “Bugs Alive!”

“Loss of habitat is the number one threat to species worldwide and our little desert community is no exception,” Bills said. “It is an unfortunate irony that the new natural history museum will be a part of that destruction.” She added, “On the other hand, many museum employees are passio
nate about communicating the beauty of that landscape to the general public. With our new facility, we hope to be perfectly situated to share our love of that particular ecosystem and inspire an appreciation and even a reverence for it.”

Trail Visitors

Sperry regularly visits the trail and takes his field botany class to the trail that now runs through the construction site every semester. “Up there, there is a nice diversity of different kids of grassland and foothill land,” Sperry said. “It’s among the most diverse for our region.”

With construction, Sperry said he and his class will be pushed farther north and south along the trail to find other plant populations.

“I totally endorse the mission of the museum, but it’s betrayed its mission,” Sperry said. “It’s hypocritical of the natural history museum to destroy natural history and to trumpet the green nature of the building. A green building is still a building.”

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