LDS environmentalists want their institution to address the Great Salt Lake’s collapse

Advocates call for healing the rift between scripture and politics.

In the spring of 1848, shortly after the first Latter-day Saints settled in the Salt Lake Valley in what later became known as the Territory of Utah, a plague of crickets swarmed their crops. As the tale goes, they prayed, and God sent seagulls from the nearby Great Salt Lake, whose existence reminded the settlers of Israel and the Dead Sea. “By thousands and tens of thousands, (the seagulls) began to devour them up ... until the land was cleared of crickets, and our crops were saved,” a church elder recalled in an 1880 sermon. By saving the crops, the gulls saved the thousands of settlers.

 

Today, the Salt Lake Valley remains the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But now it’s the Great Salt Lake that needs saving. The West’s megadrought has shrunk the lake to record-low levels, and toxic metals in the exposed lakebed are creating dangerous dust storms. Much of the water diverted away from the lake is used for alfalfa, Utah’s top cash crop, and many alfalfa farmers are Mormons; the LDS Church itself owns over 5,000 acres of farmland in Salt Lake County alone. But even though the LDS scriptures are rich in environmentally minded teachings, many members who consider themselves environmentalists believe their institution is missing an opportunity to live up to its ideals. 

“If we were to follow that clear guidance in scripture to have a plant-based diet, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Ben Abbott, left, an ecosystem scientist at Brigham Young University, and Marc Coles-Ritchie, board secretary of the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance, at the Rally to Save Our Great Salt Lake.

But Mormons who want their church to address current environmental crises must navigate a complex political history. During the 1980s, when resentment of federal regulations sparked protests dubbed the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” many churchgoers sympathized: In the mid-1800s, the federal government had persecuted Latter-day Saints for practicing polygamy by seizing church property and incarcerating officials. (The church renounced polygamy in 1890.) This fraught history made conflict over federal environmental regulation particularly heated in Mormon country. In July 1999, for instance, a bishop in Escalante, Utah, called for a “religious war” against environmentalists. Today, the church’s membership remains overwhelmingly conservative.  

Because early LDS culture revolved around farming, founder Joseph Smith emphasized the importance of careful stewardship. One scripture — which famously bans the consumption of coffee and alcohol — states that meat is “to be used sparingly” and “only in times of winter, or of cold or famine.” Adherence to that directive could help preserve the Great Salt Lake. “The drying of the Great Salt Lake is being driven primarily by growing alfalfa, which isn’t for human consumption directly, but feed for animals,” said Ben Abbott, an ecosystem scientist at Brigham Young University and a board member of the faith-based advocacy organizations LDS Earth Stewardship and Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance (MESA). “If we were to follow that clear guidance in scripture to have a plant-based diet, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

 

Staff and students of the Brigham Young University Student Sustainability Initiative pose for a group photo.

 

Current and former church members say that the environmental teachings of Mormon scripture are overlooked in favor of teachings that treat life on Earth as merely a preparation for heaven. “All the years I was in the church, environmentalism was scoffed at — it was considered a fool’s game,” said John Larsen, former host of the Mormon Expression podcast, who was raised in the church. “Being an apocalyptic church, they believe that Jesus will come soon and renew the Earth, so trying to fix the environment is unnecessary.” Under this interpretation, Larsen said, the desiccation of the Great Salt Lake could be seen as simply another sign of the decadence of non-believers’ earthly existence.

“Being an apocalyptic church, they believe that Jesus will come soon and renew the Earth, so trying to fix the environment is unnecessary.” 

Still, Mormon environmentalists, who see reverence for the Earth as essential to spirituality, say they are seeing increasing willingness to embrace environmentalism. Organizations such as LDS Earth Stewardship, founded in 2012, and MESA, which branched off to focus on political advocacy, are part of this change. “Our doctrine is very supportive of conservation, but we felt like the membership and the culture of the church have not been,” said Marc Coles-Ritchie, an ecologist and MESA board chair. But now, he said, “there is a shift and a greater awareness and willingness to try to address environmental problems.” In addition to the Great Salt Lake, MESA has been involved in activism regarding air pollution, climate change and the conservation of Utah Lake. 

Brigham Young University staff and students of the BYU Student Sustainability Initiative attend the Rally to Save Our Great Salt Lake at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Saturday, Jan. 14.

There are signs that the church as an institution is shifting. In June 2022, it released a statement encouraging water conservation. And last year, two church leaders gave formal addresses at LDS events about the importance of water conservation and environmental stewardship. 

When approached for comment by HCN, a representative of the church’s communications team replied that they “are not offering interviews on (the water conservation statement) or about the Great Salt Lake.” Still, advocates hope the church will use its clout to make an environmental impact, especially in calling for conservation of agricultural water. “The church could be incredibly important in calling for conservation in a way that the state government never could,” said Abbott.  

Caroline Tracey is the climate justice fellow at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.