Bonnie Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College, remembers her introduction to the immense inland sea that would become the center of her career.

In preparation for her interview with Westminster in 1989, Baxter, in North Carolina, was unable to find much information on the lake. 

“Finally, somebody recommended I read Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams,” she says. Williams’ book chronicles the rise of the Great Salt Lake in the early 1980s that threatened farms, industries, highways and a wildlife sanctuary that became an emotional anchor for the Utah-born writer. When Baxter’s Westminster hosts offered to entertain her while she was in town, she said, “I want to see the Great Salt Lake.”

Baxter got the job as a biology professor and continued to explore the lake. And after numerous attempts, she finally made it to the north arm shoreline where artist Robert Smithson was drawn to create his black basalt rock, Spiral Jetty. “That landscape is so Martian,” Baxter says. “We came onto pink water with blue skies.” 

As Baxter researched the lake, she began hearing from scientists around the world who were researching similar habitats. Out of that, the Great Salt Lake Institute, or GSLI, was born. The Institute not only aids research and educates students, but it reaches out to the community. 

“We’re not an activist organization. We don’t file lawsuits,” Baxter says. In fact, GSLI’s partners include mining corporation Rio Tinto and local environmental groups. “There aren’t enough people bridging the gap between the two sides,” she says. “The potential for learning and dialog happens at the intersection points.” Recently, GSLI took on a new duty. When Dia, a New York–based foundation that holds the lease on the land under theSpiral Jetty, renegotiated the lease last year, GSLI became a partner with Dia and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in protecting the landart.

Now Baxter is trying to figure out why many Utahns have so little love for their big lake. “I think local rejection of the Great Salt Lake is historical,” she says. “Pioneers were living on arid land next to a huge body of water that you couldn’t drink out of and had no fish. That developed a cultural emotion against the lake.”

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