'Diesel Brothers' star tests souped-up 'Freedom Bus' on dry Great Salt Lake bed

Thursday , July 12, 2018 - 5:15 AM2 comments

SYRACUSE — Just as July’s early morning light began heating up the air hanging around Antelope Island, Dave “Heavy D” Sparks rolled down the island causeway in an eye-catching, monster-truck bus, complete with a mural incorporating the American Flag, bald eagle and the words “Freedom Bus.”

Sparks operates several diesel-truck-based businesses in Woods Cross. He claimed fame by posting online antics in his tricked-out trucks, then rose to stardom through his Discovery Channel reality TV show, “Diesel Brothers.” More recently, Sparks made local headlines after he and some partners purchased the 3,000-acre Fremont Island in February, one of the largest islands on the Great Salt Lake.

Sparks plans to use his retrofitted Blue Bird school bus for transportation on his new island, but he first needed to get it there. He also needed to prove impacts to the lake would be minimal. That’s why, Wednesday morning, a wide-load semi truck hauled the bus to Antelope Island. When Sparks arrived, via motorcycle, he climbed up the bus and took the wheel, driving it down the causeway, over its shoulder, then across the salty lake’s dry bed with close supervision from the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

“We’re not sure it’s the best means of getting to Fremont Island,” said Jason Curry, spokesman for the division. “We agreed to allow a demonstration.”

Although the lakebed is public trust land managed by the state, travel on it is typically forbidden for a variety of reasons. It can disturb nesting birds, generate dust and leave behind tracks in the sediment. It’s also a headache for emergency crews when vehicles get stuck.

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“We get a lot of people who think they want to try. It ends up being a search-and-rescue event,” Curry said. “Then there are also the other issues that go along with vehicles — fluids, things like that — that can go wrong with a vehicle that is basically stranded.”

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Fremont Island is the only privately owned island on the Great Salt Lake. Past owners have typically been granted special permission to drive across the lakebed in low water years to access the property, whether they’re using it for ranching or exotic animal hunting. Sparks is currently seeking that regular access under a separate easement, but it doesn’t cover something the size of the Freedom Bus.

“That’s why we're doing the test run,” said Laura Ault, the division’s Sovereign Lands Program coordinator. “ It’s considerably bigger.”

Typically, the island’s previous owners used trucks or off-highway vehicles to drive to the island. But past owners were given special permission to take bigger equipment across the dry bed, too, like drilling rigs and backhoes, Curry said.

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Curry is also clear — Wednesday’s test-run is a one-time deal. If anyone wants to drive the Freedom Bus across the lake bed again, they’ll need to get another permit. 

“Our intent is not to allow this as a shuttle bus, basically. We have no intention of that,” he said. 

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He also doesn’t want onlookers to see the big red, white and blue rig and get the notion that they can drive on the lakebed, too.

“We don’t want this to be any kind of attractive nuisance,” Curry said. “We don’t want this to be a demonstration of what you’re allowed to do, should do, or should want to do. We prefer to keep it under a lower profile.”

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Sparks initially approached the state about demonstrating the Freedom Bus around six weeks ago. During Wednesday morning’s test run, the bus drove on the lakebed with a side-by-side ATV so officials could compare the tracks. 

Despite its enormity, Curry said the Freedom Bus tracks were less deep than those of the ATV, although they were wider, because its monster tires are also low-pressure. 

The Freedom Bus was able to drive all the way to Fremont Island.

“Success, I guess, you could say,” Curry said.

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Eric Duncan with Magilla Entertainment — the company that produced the “Diesel Brothers” for the Discovery Channel — approached Standard-Examiner reporters during the demonstration as they tried to get a comment.

“I’m not going to give you anything,” he said. “There will be no one at all that will give you anything. That’s where we’re at.”

Sparks and his “Diesel Brothers” co-stars are currently entangled in a lawsuit with Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment for allegedly tampering with trucks’ emissions controls so they blow smoke. Tampering with emissions is a violation of the U.S. Clean Air Act.

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Last month a judge issued a preliminary injunction ordering Sparks and his employees to stop any further emissions modifications and barring them from selling tampered vehicles.

The Standard-Examiner has made several attempts to contact representatives for the “Diesel Brothers” for comment in the past.

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For a Salt Lake Tribune story on the Fremont Island purchase, however, an attorney for Sparks said the reality star is environmentally conscious.

“The owners have applied for an access permit for exploratory purposes to determine some responsible, eco-friendly, low-impact uses of the island that will allow Utahns and tourists alike to travel back in time for light recreating and possible lodging,” Cole Cannon told the Tribune in May.

Cannon is representing Sparks in the Utah Physicians suit.

Environmental advocates, however, say they’re concerned about busloads of people moving through an ecologically sensitive area.

“Using that island for whatever purpose they have in mind, I think it’s a lost positive for what we could actually be doing for Fremont Island, using that as an asset instead of a playground,” said Lynn de Freitas, executive director of FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake. “It just doesn’t bode well for the future of that particular lakeform that has history, has culture, has value.”

She’s also not thrilled with the idea of using the lakebed for island access. Despite lower water levels, Fremont Island can still be accessed by boat, according to state officials.

“It would be nice if there was a bottom-line understanding of the value of the lake, the sanctity of the lakebed, because I do consider it to be very precious and sacred in the role it serves as part of the personality, nature and character of the system,” de Freitas said. 

One of Sparks’ business websites, DieselSellerz.com, notes the “Diesel Brothers” crew is currently filming for its fourth season. The Freedom Bus, however, does not appear to be part of the show.

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/LeiaInTheField or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.  


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