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
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
“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
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
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—
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.”
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.