Utah Youth Climate Activists Hold Wake for the Great Salt Lake

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“The only landscape we know is something dead.”

This story was originally published by High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

On a hot morning in early August, a group of college- and high-school-aged climate activists decided to hold a funeral. They were drinking hot cocoa on a camping trip to Antelope Island, an island in Utah’s Great Salt Lake that has recently become a peninsula due to the lake’s receding waters, when they thought of it.

“When someone is dying, we sit with them and we spend time with them,” said Muskan Walia, a 20-year-old math and philosophy student at the University of Utah and an organizer with Utah Youth Environmental Solutions, a youth-founded organization. “So we thought, why don’t we do the same for the lake?”

Like many other waterways and lakes in the Western U.S., the Great Salt Lake is currently in an unprecedented and dire situation due to the ongoing megadrought. In July, its surface elevation fell below 4,190.2 feet, the record low set in October 2021. Since then, it has dropped over a foot further. The decline threatens the estimated 10 million migratory birds that stop annually at the lake, as well as the flies, brine shrimp and finely adapted microorganisms lower on the food chain, which are already beginning to die off due to increased salinity. It is also creating toxic dust storms that make the air harder to breathe for Salt Lake City’s 1.3 million residents.

On September 3, more than 100 people gathered on the Great Salt Lake’s dry bed to mourn the lake’s decline with the student activists. Following the funeral, the activists staged a die-in, simulating collective death in a cemetery of handmade gravestones. The action both drew attention to the crisis at the lake and underlined the climate crisis’ connections to other movements: Die-ins, which became a common feature of protests during the environmental and anti-war movements of the 1960s and ’70s, have recently been used to protest police brutality and school gun violence.

Four of the youth activists—Alan Gutiérrez, 22, Natalie Roberts, 15, Lorali Smith, 17, and Walia—spoke with High Country News about the event. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

High Country News: How did you get involved with activism about the Great Salt Lake and the climate crisis?

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