Community project to revive Vineyard wetlands put on hold

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated and revised with new information.

The Walkara Way project in Vineyard, Utah would create a park for public use and create a border fence. The left side of the fence is untouched while the right side has been part of a grazing pilot program allowing cattle and livestock to help decrease overgrown vegetation in wetlands around Utah Lake. (Ashley Pun Eveson)

A community project to revive Vineyard wetlands was halted because of Lake Restoration Solutions moving forward on the Utah Lake islands project.

The Walkara Way project is led by Jacob Holdaway, who has dedicated more than four years of his life to creating a public park called Walkara Way with donated lands from Vineyard residents. 

Holdaway joined more than 25 different government entities to organize the Walkara Way project. It holds a special place in his heart because his family history is tied in with Vineyard, where he grew up. 

“I remember how Utah Lake looked before,” Holdaway said. “I remember going to scout camps on the lakeshore and enjoying the wildlife. Now it’s completely different.” 

One of the original houses in Vineyard, shown here, was built by the Holdaway Family. Jacob Holdaway’s family has deep ties within the community of Vineyard as one of the founding families there. (Ashley Pun Eveson)

Utah Lake is the largest freshwater lake in Utah, covering 148 square miles. It is a state park where people can fish, swim, go boating or camp. More than 100,000 people visited the park last year.

Many of the privately owned wetlands were abandoned with the decline of agriculture and farming in the area and are now overgrown, allowing mosquitoes to flourish. 

There is no public access to these wetlands, which are owned by residents, and they are not well taken care of, Holdaway said.

The Walkara Way project would create a park for public use and create a border fence. It would introduce cattle and livestock to remove vegetation sustainably and help with the mosquito problem. The project would also repair the old field drains to create a healthy ecosystem in the wetlands for birds, Holdaway said.

Named after the Timpanogos tribe leader Walkara, the goal of the project is to restore the wetlands to a healthier state and allow the public to use the land. 

“I think it’s always a great thing to have additional green space available to people,” said Adam Johnson, a BYU graduate student and assistant director of Conserve Utah Valley. “It’s got lots of proven benefits — green space leads to happier communities and more recreational areas for people. This would be a huge win to be able to have all that land protected.”

The project has been in the works for a long time, but Holdaway said the development of Walkara Way has hit a few roadblocks in the project because of Lake Restoration Solutions.

Holdaway said he met with Ryan Benson, CEO of Lake Restoration Solutions, and Jon Benson, Chief Operating Officer of Lake Restoration Solutions, on July 1, 2020.

“We went on a tour of my wetlands and walked along the path and they offered to purchase the wetlands. We met with them twice, but after the second time we felt it was a slimy deal so we told Eric (Ellis) from the (Utah) Lake Commission that we didn’t want to be involved,” Holdaway said.

Jon Benson said the purpose of the meeting with Holdaway was to see if Lake Restoration Solutions could be of any help to the Walkara Way project. “We believe in that project, we love the conservation benefit,” he said.

Benson said he offered Holdaway some help with getting Environmental Protection Agency funding for the project, but he said Holdaway declined for fear of “strings attached.” Benson also said there was no discussion of purchasing their lands.

Holdaway said other residents told him they were also approached by the Benson’s and offered money “to fix the problem,” but not for actual property.

Benson said Lake Restoration Solutions has no intent to purchase the wetlands in Vineyard for development. “Our interest in wetlands is for conservation,” he said.

Benson also said Lake Restoration Solutions has no interest in any of the property owned by residents who are already planning on donating their wetlands to the Walkara Way project. Benson said he hopes the Walkara Way project is successful.

Later that year in September, Holdaway said he and some other residents saw a letter from Vineyard Mayor Julie Fullmer in a Utah Lake Development Fund, L.P. document, where Fullmer pledged $5 million “to be used for eligible approved project related costs.”

The Clegg family owns about 350 acres of land in Vineyard, 40 acres of which are wetlands. According to Holdaway, the Cleggs originally planned on donating their wetlands to the Walkara Way project.

Protestors at the Utah State Capitol hold up paper birds saying, “Don’t pave Utah Lake” on Feb. 7, 2022 during a rally against the islands Utah Lake project. (Ashley Pun Eveson)

But about a month ago, Holdaway said he heard the Clegg family was negotiating with Lake Restoration Solutions to sell their land.

“It caught me by surprise and was something that was only discussed behind closed doors,” Holdaway said in reference to the mayor’s letter and the potential deals with the Clegg family. “There was no transparency with Vineyard City and Lake Restoration Solutions.” 

Benson said Lake Restoration Solutions wanted to buy the land from the Cleggs next to the wetlands, but not buy the wetlands. This land would be part of their restoration project where they plan to create islands on Utah Lake to restore the lake by dredging up sediment from the bottom of the lake.

The lake restoration project has been met with lots of controversy, including a BYU plant and wildlife professor Ben Abbott getting sued for defamation because he has been outspoken in opposing Lake Restoration Solutions.

The Walkara Way project has been put on hold as Holdaway and other leaders of the project struggle to figure out how to move forward.

On March 1, Vineyard City announced an update of the Walkara Way project: “As a priority for Vineyard and surrounding communities, the project solidified and received funding from the state legislature. The momentum of this project continues to move forward.” 

“This area creates 600 acres of conserved open space,” Vineyard City said. “The Walkara Way proposal was met with rapid success and approvals, with multiple entities championing the process.”

Even as the future of Walkara Way is uncertain, Vineyard residents continue fighting to preserve the public land. 

“Utah Lake is everybody’s responsibility because it influences us all. Talk to your legislators, read the news. Every one of those little things that you do to educate yourself makes a massive difference. We need everybody on board in order to slay Goliath,” Johnson said. 

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