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Housing project threatens rare fireflies on Utah farm

July 26, 2019
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In this June 18, 2019 photo, Amy Baird and her children, Jacob, from left, Eliza and Olivia have the chance to see fireflies for the first time in Spanish Fork, Utah. Diane Garcia's alfalfa farm in Utah County where — by some inimitable combination of tall grasses and marshy ground and dark skies — the unique bugs have taken up an unexpected residence. It's a rarity to see them in the West. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)
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In this June 18, 2019 photo, Amy Baird and her children, Jacob, from left, Eliza and Olivia have the chance to see fireflies for the first time in Spanish Fork, Utah. Diane Garcia's alfalfa farm in Utah County where — by some inimitable combination of tall grasses and marshy ground and dark skies — the unique bugs have taken up an unexpected residence. It's a rarity to see them in the West. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

SPANISH FORK, Utah (AP) — At first they looked like sparks.

The flashes of light floated in the air for a second and then extinguished. A few feet away, they would strike up again. Tiny, match-like bursts.

“There’s one,” a boy shouted. “Look over there! Right there!” a girl squealed.

In the dark, no one could really tell where they were pointing. But everyone knew they were seeing the same thing: fireflies.

It was the last tour of the summer season at Diane Garcia’s alfalfa farm in Utah County where — by some inimitable combination of tall grasses and marshy ground and dark skies — the unique bugs have taken up an unexpected residence. It’s a rarity to see them in the West. It’s even more unheard of in the dry deserts of Utah.

So about 50 people each night march through the mud on Garcia’s property just outside of Spanish Fork, which she opens for free, to see the glowing insect spectacle and find out if they are really here.

They are.

On this balmy evening after the Fourth of July, fireworks popped overhead, but no one looked up at them. Instead, kids ran through the pasture trying to catch the elusive flying lights. Adults chased after them, too, if only a bit slower. “Mommy, I’ve got one,” a proud 5-year-old beamed, opening his cupped hands holding the proof.

“The fireflies have been here as long as we know,” Garcia said. She stood at the gate leading into the farm. She smiled and watched.

Her family, the Thompsons, has owned this property since 1852. And her great-great-grandfather was the first to stumble upon the bugs while irrigating the land around midnight. For more than 160 years since then, her family has tried to protect the flashy fleas. But they may not be able to for much longer.

Walking out onto her field — where the bottom of a mountain range forms the boundary and hay bales are scattered like Tetris blocks — Garcia stopped where the alfalfa hadn’t yet been cut. The 58-year-old woman is small and short with long gray hair, and even at 11 p.m. it’s easy to see that the grass towers above her.

She turned around and pointed to the west end of her land. “Just right there,” she said, “that’s where they’re developing.”

Spanish Fork has approved a plan to build 130 homes on a piece of adjacent property it recently annexed. If the homes go in, the light pollution from porches and street poles will likely scare away and ultimately kill off Garcia’s fireflies.

“I’ve tried to educate the government on it,” she said. “So far, nobody cares. But we’ve got to do something to save this. I’ve got to get people’s attention.”

Otherwise, she added, choking back tears, “They’ll all be gone.”

At its heart, this is the same battle over growth that many Utah towns face.

Spanish Fork, at the southern end of burgeoning Utah County, has mostly — until now — resisted the larger developments that cities around it have welcomed. It started as an agricultural community. There’s a One Man Band Diner on the corner of Main Street, a C-A-L Ranch store in the middle and American flags on every lamp post in between.

But even the town’s motto — “Pride and Progress” — seems to hint at the tension that exists over holding onto the past while moving forward.

“You know how development goes — it’s eventually taking over everything,” said Spanish Fork Mayor Steve Leifson. “That’s just the nature of the beast.”

Leifson was born and raised here. And he has watched as the town grew from 4,000 people in his childhood to 40,000 today. But because Garcia’s farm doesn’t fall within the city limits, she is not counted among those residents.

Her property, down a winding road called River Bottoms, is surrounded by green pastures filled with horses and cows and what the farmers here endearingly call “little black kitties” (though bumping into one, the smell would reveal it’s actually a skunk). Just up the street from her place is the city’s fairgrounds.

People here in Spanish Fork don’t just love the rodeo. They love being people who love the rodeo so much that they spent millions to expand the fairgrounds so they can love the rodeo even more.

Garcia points to it, though, as an example of the problem. Before the fairgrounds went in, she said, there were fireflies there, too. Now, with the floodlights that shine down as cowboys are bucked off broncs, there are no longer any left.

She worries the same thing will happen at her place.

For years, she has attended City Council and planning commission meetings. She talked about the light pollution in 2016. She protested against the annexation next to her farm in 2017. And she presented a slideshow about fireflies in 2018.

“My fireflies will be affected by this,” she pleaded during one meeting. “I would like to request that that’s something the city consider.”

Leifson responded: “It’s nice to know that we have them in Spanish Fork. We’ll do our best to help keep them there.”

And on that same night, after Garcia talked for nearly 20 minutes about the bugs, the council voted unanimously to move forward with the housing development.

At last count, there were more than 6,000 people on the waiting list to get a tour of Garcia’s farm.

Laura Eliason signed up two years ago and nabbed a reservation on the last day of the 2019 season. Greg Dyer got a last-minute call after waiting a year. Both brought their kids to see the fireflies earlier this month.

“If it’s not magical, they’re going to pretend,” Eliason said with a laugh, pointing to her husband, Jim, and their 15-year-old son, Logan.

Garcia started to welcome the public every week night to her farm three years ago when the housing project was first proposed. She wanted people to experience the fireflies before they disappeared. This year from the end of May to the beginning of July when fireflies are active, more than 1,200 visited her property.

She has invited the Spanish Fork mayor, too, and every city council member. None has come.

“It’s something I want to keep for my family, but I’m trying to share it with the community,” Garcia said.

Guests are asked to walk to the field by 9 p.m., getting there as the sun sets. The group sits around a campfire roasting marshmallows while it gets darker. And Garcia tells them about her family history.

The Thompsons have been here for more than a century — which is why it’s named Thompson Century Farm — she says. They’re so connected to this place, in fact, that Garcia can tell if it’s a neighbor or a visitor driving past her property just by their license plate.

Slightly after 10 p.m., Garcia walks the group into the pasture, following a winding dirt path that leads into the pitch black. She likes to pause before opening the gate. Her favorite part is the crowd’s anticipation when they start to wonder: Are they really going to see fireflies? Or did they just get duped into standing in the middle of a farm in the dark?

As soon as folks walk into the tall grasses, she can hear their answer.

“Ah! I saw one.”

“Woah!”

“Did you catch that?”

Most people in Utah have never seen fireflies before. “And we’ve been here for 46 years,” one grandpa told Garcia.

There are more than 2,000 species in the world. Six in Utah. Two in Garcia’s field.

They exist throughout the state from Logan to Moab where Christy Bills, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum of Utah, has collected the insects. But most people just don’t know they’re here.

“It’s not like Disneyland,” Bills said. “You can’t buy a ticket and go shop nature. You have to be out there looking for them.”

The bugs light up for only about five weeks in the middle of summer. And usually only after 10 p.m. The area also has to be marshy and dark.

On the farm, the stars shine overhead and the lightning bugs buzz around blinking like freeway traffic. Spotting them is easy. The insect’s abdomen twinkles a neon yellow. The trick is catching them. By the time you think you’re on top of one, it flashes off.

The $50 word is “bioluminescence.” That’s what makes fireflies light up, Bills said.

The insects shine to ward off predators. Mostly, though, it’s a ritual. The male bug flies around searching for a female who is blinking in a similar pattern. Then, they mate.

“They’re flirting with each other,” Garcia said with a wink. “But I try to keep it G-rated. So the boy one turns on a little Barry White.”

Bills started the Western Firefly Project to track sightings here and in surrounding states. Plenty of reports have created a hotspot around Garcia’s farm. But, the researcher added, that could go easily away with the proposal to build houses nearby.

Too much light confuses fireflies. They don’t blink and they don’t mate. And then they die off. They don’t migrate. They don’t relocate.

“She has every reason to be worried,” Bills said.

The balance is over private property rights where both sides believe the scales are tipped against them.

Garcia is trying to preserve the land she owns. Mark Warner, who is leading the home project, is trying to capitalize on the land he owns. But here the dirt is tied as much to use as it is to identity.

The Thompson family settled in the area in 1852 and immediately started a farm. The fireflies were here before Samuel Thompson. But he was here before the town formed. And his relatives have continued to cultivate the crops, including Garcia’s 31-year-old son, Eric, and 35-year-old daughter, Stephanie Betz.

The Holt family — which Warner is a descendant of — took up camp nearby around the same time. They got their land from the Homestead Act when the federal government assigned parcels to farmers to till and improve. As it was passed down to the children, it got divided. On one corner now, there’s a construction company. On most of the rest, there’s weeds.

At one point, the two families were friends. Even more distantly, they were related. Now, they see the River Bottoms differently.

Warner wants to build 130 luxury homes for a 55-and-older community. He envisions fancy designs, extended patios and community parks and streets named after his ancestors to honor them.

Garcia just wants her property to stay the same.

“Both have a lot of history in Spanish Fork,” said Councilman Mike Mendenhall. “But you physically can’t stop growth.”

The city, when it annexed Warner’s property in 2017, zoned it for residential use. No public hearing was required. And because it’s private ownership, neither was an environmental impact study. The council said that the landowner had a right to do with it what he wanted.

“Not everybody’s going to like it,” Leifson, the mayor, said.

The dispute has divided the town, though. One man near Garcia’s place stood on his front lawn for an entire day in only a Speedo to protest the development, saying if the project was going to be put in, then it was his right to wear what he wanted on his property. People might not like looking at him, and he won’t like looking at the rows of houses.

Another family started to charge people to park if they were coming to see Garcia’s fireflies, saying they had a right to make a profit along their driveways.

Meanwhile, Garcia has accused Warner of plotting to purposely kill her fireflies. And she believes the City Council has played favorites since the construction company now on his land — owned by Warner’s sister and her husband — does work for Spanish Fork.

“They’re a good old boys network, and they do favors for each other,” she alleged. “We’ve been a small town for so long, and now we have big money.”

Warner said he has not had any such preferential treatment and bears no ill intents. But, he added, Garcia has stood in the way of his development for years. He called her a gadfly.

“Because she doesn’t agree with it, she’s doing everything she can to attack us,” he suggested. “And she seems to think this is the only place that has any fireflies. Although I’m sympathetic to her issues, I don’t feel like in any way that should stop us from doing what we’re doing on our property.”

Separating the development and Garcia’s farm will be an iron-rail fence.

The city generally requires housing projects to be surrounded by brick-and-mortar walls — particularly those along busy roads, said Dave Anderson, the community development director for the city. But for this project, Spanish Fork wanted to keep the agrarian look of the neighborhood and keep the meadows open.

That fence has been one of the sorest parts in all of this for Garcia.

She asked the city and the developer to put in a concrete wall and a line of trees to block the light from leaking onto her field and her fireflies. It was a compromise. They declined. The first model home will be in by the end of the year. And the community will be built out in about five years with street lamps and porch lights up to city code.

Garcia has started to plant her own trees. So far, the deer on her property have eaten the shoots. She doesn’t have a lot of money to keep buying more, so for now there are 10 willows started with fencing around them. It has already cost her $1,000.

Some of the City Council members have been more sympathetic. Brandon Gordon, who works part-time on his own farm growing squash and red potatoes, said Spanish Fork can continue to revise plans for the development and “everything is still on the table.”

He feels tied to the town’s agriculture heritage and doesn’t want to lose the fireflies.

“We’re a shrinking number of people who want to get our fingers dirty picking sweet corn and catching bugs,” he noted.

Another Utah city — Nibley in the northern part of the state just below Logan — faced an almost identical dilemma when it found fireflies on a small piece of property used for cattle grazing in 2015. Residents were walking through the fields one day when they spotted the bugs and reported it to town officials.

Nibley purchased the plot for $450,000 and made it into a nature park. It officially opened a few weeks ago.

“When the city found out there were fireflies there, we wanted to preserve it,” said David Zook, Nibley city manager. “If the city didn’t, it would have only been a matter of time before someone developed it.”

Garcia tried to sell Spanish Fork that plan. Gordon listened. But the mayor said residents would never vote on a bond to buy the Warner property and keep it as green space. And the city didn’t have enough money to outright purchase it.

So the council moved forward with the development. There may be more building in the River Bottoms in coming years.

Meanwhile, many people who visit Garcia’s farm to see the fireflies have bought T-shirts and offered donations so she can protect the field. It may be a losing battle, but Garcia plans to offer tours like the one she led in early July when the fireflies return again next May.

After most visitors stumble out of the grasses with muddy feet, they’re beaming. Most thank Garcia for the experience and describe it using the same word: magical. They had no idea this was here, that there were lightning bugs in Utah.

Garcia just hopes that spark won’t go out.

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Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com

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