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Spiral Jetty Jitters

Is Spiral Jetty threatened by petro-greed? Two environmental organizations, Friends of the Great Salt Lake and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, recently alerted Nancy Holt, the widow of Robert Smithson, of a wildcat oil company seeking state permission to do exploratory drilling of the West Rozel Field, an underwater oil deposit in the Great Salt Lake just a couple of miles from Spiral Jetty. Holt appealed to her friends in the arts and media, urging them "to save the beautiful, natural Utah environment around the Spiral Jetty from oil drilling." Over a thousand emails of protest were sent to the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, which in response has extended the period of public comment to February 13, 2008 on Application to Permit Drilling #08-8853.

Should you wish to make your voice heard, feel free to call or email Jonathan Jemming at 801-537-9023 or I dutifully fired off my own letter, as follows:

Dear Mr. Jemming:

There is oil to be found (and exploited for profit) in various and sundry locations throughout Planet Earth, and even more specifically in the State of Utah. But there is only one Spiral Jetty. To the international art world, it is a cherished site of pilgrimage, of meditation, of reference. It is one of the few extant earthworks by Robert Smithson, an artist and visionary whose reputation and importance, since his untimely death in 1973, have grown ever larger. In the small but influential precincts of the art world, Smithson looms, if not as a God, then certainly as a major deity.

I am sure this has become clear to you recently, due to the spate of mail you have received in defense of Spiral Jetty, and against the wildcat oil operation that seeks to begin drilling nearby. The State of Utah, the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, and you most particularly, should not wish to be identified with the despoiling of nature and the insensitive handling of an area that should be designated a national monument.

Deny Application #08-8853. Say "no" to the West Rozel Field Prospect. And most of all: Dude. Don't Mess With the Jetty!!!

Steven Kaplan

I sent this note despite certain misgivings. Smithson was well known for his embrace of entropy and the interplay between man and nature. He was particularly fond of the detritus found in industrial sites, and often planned his excavations and interventions in ecologically "compromised" areas, in mines and quarries, which he did not view as compromised in the least. There is ample evidence, presented by blogger and native Utahan Greg Allen, that Smithson chose the Spiral Jetty site precisely for its primitive, antediluvian, ecological implications -- a salt flat in proximity to tar-like deposits and an off-shore oil seep -- and that an abandoned oil derrick, a huge industrial jetty only a half mile away that still dwarfs Smithson's own project, as well as various corroded pumps and other industrial waste, were quite visible during construction in 1970. In an interesting wrinkle, the state of Utah has since removed 18 dumpster loads of junk in order to "prettify" the area.

Smithson was perversely enchanted with the site, which in his own words "gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes." Historically, there had been various attempts to extract oil, all of which failed due to the harsh, corrosive salt air, the quality of the deposits, and other factors. In this context, the proposed oil drilling near Rozel Point could be viewed as a welcome entropic intervention, something Smithson, were he still alive, might accept as part of a continuing dialog. So all the well meaning, knee jerk PC activity to "save" the natural, pristine beauty of Spiral Jetty might run counter to Smithson's own aesthetic predilections.

Jetty Update

As per

"A Canadian company is not giving up on its hopes to drill for oil in the Great Salt Lake near Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, according to the Associated Press via the Deseret News. Keith Hill, president of Pearl Montana Exploration of Calgary, Alberta, said that the company is addressing shortcomings in its previous applications and will resubmit them as soon as possible.

The Utah Department of Natural Resources recently returned the company's applications to drill two exploratory wells from barges about five miles from Spiral Jetty. State officials say the company didn't provide answers to several key questions about how the project near Rozel Point would be carried out, such as whether water rights had been obtained for the project and whether possible effects on cultural artifacts in the area, including Spiral Jetty, had been evaluated. The company also never provided the state with diagrams it asked for with details about drilling rigs, barges, staging areas, or equipment that would be used in case of a spill.

The company's application in January drew protests from art aficionados and environmentalists who worried about the effects of the project, especially its proximity to the jetty, a fifteen-hundred-foot coil of basalt rock and soil built by Smithson in 1970. The jetty was given to New York's Dia Art Foundation as part of Smithson's estate."