As the pioneers began to build Zion, they reshaped the environment to make the land more productive and suitable for their needs. Occasionally, however, their policies and practices were not environmentally sound—over time, the land’s ability to provide for them was diminished rather than enhanced. Fortunately, they and their posterity established a pattern of striving to correct their environmental mistakes, once they were aware of them. In so doing, they set a precedent for citizens today.
Understanding the Great Basin’s presettlement environment is requisite to understanding the impact of the pioneers’ activities on local ecosystems. The Great Salt Lake Valley and adjacent areas had been visited by travelers, explorers, government agents, and missionaries long before the Mormon pioneers entered. Many early visitors kept journals in which they described the land. From these journals, we get a reasonably good picture of the state of the land and its resources as they existed when the Native Americans were the sole occupants.
Two of the earliest presettlement visitors to the Great Basin, Fathers Domínguez and Escalante, entered Utah in 1776 from present-day Colorado and traveled west to Utah Valley. They wrote of “marshy estuaries” associated with lakes and rivers, “a good deal of pasturage” along all the streams, and abundant land that could be farmed “with the aid of irrigation.” They also wrote of flat stretches of sagebrush, some with associated prickly pear cactus.