In a 24-hour whirlwind tour of Utah that included a stop in Moab, Utah Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz hoped to show veteran Congressman, and ranking Democratic member on the House Oversight Committee, Elijah Cummings, how rural Utahns feel about the federal government's control over public lands within the state.
Similarly, Chaffetz recently toured Cummings' Baltimore, Maryland Congressional district to learn about the challenges that face a poor, inner city, and mostly black population. He visited an AIDS clinic and an urban center for troubled youth.
The two decided to swap visits to each others' districts to learn about the challenges people face in regions with vastly different cultural backgrounds, and to build a bridge in today's hyper-partisan political landscape.
“The main goal is to try and find some common ground,” Chaffetz said.
They arrived in Moab on Sunday evening, Aug. 3, and took a boat ride on the Colorado River with Canyonlands by Night. The tour ended with a trip into the Windows section of Arches National Park mid-morning on Monday, Aug. 4. They stayed overnight at the Hampton Inn.
At a round table discussion held at the Grand Center on Monday morning, Cummings heard from County Council members and commissioners from Grand, San Juan, Emery, and Carbon counties. All who spoke expressed a desire for greater self determination with regard to the development of public lands within their respective counties, especially as it relates to mineral development and energy production.
Cummings, out of his element in a room full of rural Westerners, some in cowboy hats and boots, said that it is important to “just listen to folks.”
“You can make policy decisions from a distance, but when you see how those policies affect people, then you can make a difference,” he said.
Several speakers, including Grand County Council chairman Lynn Jackson, expressed concern over the Antiquities Act, which gives the President the power to designate national monuments. The Antiquities Act is a mechanism that has been used by Republican and Democratic presidents alike, to designate areas as national monuments. Some of those monuments have later become national parks, including four of Utah's five national parks.
“That process is broken,” Jackson said. “I don't believe the 1906 act was ever intended for this. When 14 senators from out of the area write the President and tell him what to do with our land, we are very resentful.”
In 2012, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) with the support of more than 100 businesses wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to designate the 1.4-million acre monument, not only for the preservation of its scenic beauty, but because of its importance to the recreation economy.
“Many of us know and love the Greater Canyonlands area first-hand, and would like to see the area preserved because it is a premier part of our nation’s natural heritage,” the letter stated. “But as people who make their living in the outdoor industry, we also want to stress that preserving landscapes like Greater Canyonlands makes good economic sense.”
Jackson acknowledged that Moab was a “gateway town” to area national parks, and that 60-to-80 percent of Moab's economy is based on recreation, but he also pointed out that 40 percent of the jobs in Moab pay $1,500 a month. He also said that the county government doesn't see money from recreation and that mineral royalties pay to keep the hospital and care center open.
“Mineral royalties paid for this building,” he said.“Our concern is that we can enhance our economy through mineral development.”
The designation of a Greater Canyonlands National Monument by executive order would derail efforts by Chaffetz and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, to craft legislation that would resolve public land management issues in Utah by hammering out a compromise between interested stakeholders.
Emery County commissioner J.R. Nelson told Cummings what a bad year 1996 was for Utah, the year that president Bill Clinton “locked up the land,” by designating the 1.8-million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM).
Neal Clark, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said there are a lot of misconceptions about what is allowed in national monuments. Grazing is still allowed in GSENM and there are over 900 miles of dirt roads open to off-road vehicle travel. If a GCNM were designated, any existing oil, gas, and potash leases would also still be valid, he said.
"It's unfortunate that Rep. Chaffetz chose to represent such a one-sided perspective of Grand County's diverse opinions on public lands,” Clark said.
Chaffetz said that if there was one theme he wanted to drive home it was clarity about who will shape future land-use decisions.
“People here love their lands,” he said. “But they don't know where the federal government is coming from. A faceless bureaucrat with the stroke of a pen can change their entire life. We need resolution and certainty.”
Cummings asked everyone how “we can keep this from becoming a waste of time?”
“The value is in hearing from people who are affected every day,” he said.