A few years ago, while living in Wyoming, I heard there had been an oil spill in Salt Lake City. I didn’t quite understand how that could happen; we weren’t anywhere near a coast with offshore rigs, like the BP spill, nor did we have gigantic oil tankers passing by, as was the case for the Valdez spill. Nonetheless, it turned out my city had a pipeline that I had been previously unaware of. I was about as clueless to the presence of an oil line as I was the watery pathway that spread the spill through the heart of our city.
Utah state history lessons during my middle school years had taught me well enough about the seven major canyons whose waters flow into the Salt Lake Valley, a major contributor to making Salt Lake City one of the few ideal places for pioneers to set up residency between Illinois and California. But where those creeks flowed, I barely knew. By the time I was born, the growing city had effectively pushed those life-giving creeks underground, hiding away any knowledge of their natural paths to the Jordan River and on to the Great Salt Lake.
That’s why, though I knew about the oil spill and knew that the residues from that accident had ended up in Red Butte Creek and the Liberty Park pond, I was surprised to return home and find warning signs posted throughout the Miller Park Bird Refuge—all along my favorite slice of urban stream—alerting walkers and dog-owners to possible contaminants in the water.
Miller Park has long been a sanctuary not just for birds, but also for city-dwellers—and their dogs—looking for a break from the city. Rather well-hidden in a quiet neighborhood on the east bench—there are entrances on either end of the park which runs between 1500 East and 1700 East just south of 900 South—the park runs alongside an unearthed quarter mile stretch of Red Butte Creek.
Entering the bird park is like passing through the wardrobe into Narnia. With only a few steps, one moves from city to wild space, from concrete to dirt path, descending suddenly and steeply into a crevasse. The path drops into a narrow ravine below the canopy of tightly grown trees. At the height of summer, these first few steps into the Refuge bring instant relief from the heat. The smell of earth and grass and wet stone rise in greeting. Sounds of traffic give way to the clatter and sloosh of water.
In winter, only those adventurous souls with good boots brave the trail, as it softens to slick mud or hardens to ice. The water still soothes with its cold, refreshing rush, but the hills morph into monumental climbs.
Perhaps it’s best, then, that this winter will likely see a temporary closure for Miller Bird Refuge. As part of the settlement from the oil spill, the city scheduled some much-needed riparian restoration work. Hiking along the north side of the park, it’s apparent why. The path dips down close to the water, canting dramatically towards the stream. In places, exposed tree roots necessitate some fancy footwork. Areas along the banks and hills are crumbling away under years of foot traffic. Down in the stream, unsightly slabs of broken cement indicate previous attempts to channel the powerful spring runoff flows.
The bird refuge is a beautiful, peaceful place. But these collapsing banks, torn up paths, non-native trees and corralled waters are not part of a healthy, functioning ecosystem. Over the next year, new native trees will be planted. The creek bed will be dug out and widened. Well-placed stones and boulders, in place of the cement, will create natural steps and pools to guide the waters gently down a more natural path.
Though it may feel like a long, lonely stretch of time before the Miller Park Bird Refuge reopens fully to the public next fall, I will look forward to descending once again into the little gully and celebrating the new life it has been given.