Rep. John Curtis, of Utah’s 3rd Congressional District, held a community meeting at Star Hall on Monday, July 30. Prior to that, he spent the day in Grand County, meeting with Moab City and Grand County officials and members of the public.
The congressman’s visit to Grand County included a hike with Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus to Delicate Arch at Arches National Park and a tour of the future site of the local Utah State University campus.
The Grand County Council held a special council meeting at 3:30 p.m. on Monday to give Curtis an update of the community’s projects and plans, including the progress and funding needs for the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project.
At the town hall meeting at 5 p.m., about 65 people from the community filed into Star Hall and took their seats, many holding green and red pieces of paper that said “agree” or “disagree.” As the community discussion took place, people raised their paper card to show agreement or disagreement with what was being said. Curtis said he didn’t come to the town hall with a specific agenda, and invited the members of the public to raise questions and make statements
Curtis spent more than 30 minutes of the 90-minute meeting listening to concerns and answering questions from individuals about Bears Ears National Monument.
Topics of discussion shifted throughout the town hall to also include energy, coal and carbon, water, and highlighted gerrymandering, tariffs on steel, the separation of families at the border, opioids and marijuana, campaign finance and political action committees, and an Emery County bill regarding the Labyrinth Canyon.
Curtis began the town hall with his background. He talked about becoming congressman in 2017, his former time as the mayor of Provo for eight years, and what it was like for him growing up in Salt Lake City with his father, who was an avid outdoorsman.
COAL AND CARBON
Curtis took his the first question from a man who asked about the “increasing Republican interest” in placing fees on carbon emissions and the economic impact of the global transition to renewable energies.
“My particular concern is … how we can make sure that the coal-mining families and communities don’t get left behind in this global transition to low-emissions energy,” Bruce Hagen said. Hagen said he works with “Clean Energy Business Engagement.”
Curtis said he knew the “environment” was going to be a topic the community was interested in discussing, and said he was going to broaden the answer to Hagen’s question. Curtis said he had spent a couple of days with the Indigenous communities in the Bears Ears Region before coming to Moab.
“[Indigenous communities] have such a love for Mother Earth,” Curtis said. “As Republicans, I think we do a terrible job at showing our love for the environment.”
Curtis said he wants to have dialogue about what can be done. He related to his experience as a child learning about the environment from his father.
“Let’s leave this Earth better than we found it, and I find that if we go to a group and we start with climate change … we end up in a debate about carbon … but I find if we start a discussion with our responsibility to be good stewards, we have much more productive dialogue about what we can do,” Curtis said.
He also said, “I have found it a difficult transition from being a mayor of city to being a federal legislator when it comes to the environment.”
Curtis said that as Provo’s mayor, he worked with councils and small businesses to develop and execute plans for environmental stewardship, like recycling, and he said it felt like progress was being made on the environment.
As a federal legislator, however, he said he has found that people don’t always want to have a dialogue about the work that can be done for the environment, but rather want to focus on the unpopularity of coal and carbon emissions.
“We have parts in my district that are going to be in a hard way constantly dependent on coal. I think we need to help those economies transition to a life without coal,” Curtis said.
The next question was raised about water by the former mayor of Castle Valley, Dave Erley.
“What are we going to do about the Colorado River Compact in the time of diminishing water supplies which we really have seen? What are we going to do when Washington doesn’t take it on because the states aren’t going to take it on? There’s too much politics, it’s got to be decided at the federal level,” Erley said.
Curtis said he somewhat agrees with Erley’s statement, but also said, “My opinion (is) that cities, counties, state and the federal government need to work on this project. As mayor, I saw cities grow and grow and grow with no water. So, it really is all levels.”
“Sir,” Erley interjected, “I was mayor for eight years of Castle Valley, I just finished. I did a water budget for the town for a wet period from 80s to 2000s. We had 6,900 acre-feet for our valley. We then went, at the state engineer’s request, and did it for the numbers since 2000. We were down 19 percent, to 5,700 acre-feet, I think it was. We have 6,800 feet of paper water rights in our valley, and we’ve been adjudicated, so those are theoretically good water rights. Moab is going through adjudication. I tried to get the regional and state engineers office to close our aquifer. Seems reasonable, right?”
Erley continued: “We’re in deficit right now. We’re 20 percent down, they say we could be 30 percent with climate change.
Curtis responded by saying, “I learned as mayor that the state does not have enough water to back up all of the water rights that we have, and so I’ll work on my end, you work on the mayors, we’ll all work on the state, fair enough?”
“Washington needs to work,” Erley said.
“Yes, thank you,” Curtis said, and asked for the next question from the audience, which was a question about what he was going to do about Bears Ears National Monument.
BEARS EARS NATIONAL MONUMENT
“My experience of Bears Ears … is that most people all want the same outcome.”
But, Curtis said, people have “very diverse opinions” about how Bears Ears should be handled.
Right now, the Indigenous tribes in the Bears Ears region have filed a lawsuit on the Trump administration’s decision to shrink the monument in 2017, are waiting for a decision to be made in the court system.
Curtis said, “The question is, how do we resolve it, and who makes those decisions? I put a bill in, and my bill was a mineral withdraw on all 1.3 million acres. It put together an archaeological protection unit to identify the sources of those particular antiquities … it brought in 20 additional law enforcement officers to protect those sites. Guess who supports my bill? Nobody.”
Curtis said that nobody supports his bill because the people on the different sides of the issue are “so divided.”
Curtis said that it’s “a bad choice” to wait for a decision to be made through a lawsuit, and said it could take five to 10 years for the outcome to be decided. For people who say they are waiting for “a new president,” he also said that there is no guarantee that the next elected president would preserve the national monument.
“[If] that president rescinds the protections again, it’s called ‘antiquities whip-lash,’” he said.
One person called out from the audience, “Restore it back to what it has been.”
“Let me ask you, why?” Curtis said.
The audience member said to restore the boundaries of the national monument back to what they originally had been, but Curtis said he disagrees.
“Let me challenge you on that. If you restore the boundaries to what President Obama did, you haven’t brought in any additional resources to protect it. You haven’t identified how you’re going to take care of the antiquities. My bill did all of this. It’s a better approach. When people’s current ideas are, ‘No, no, no, let’s restore it because Obama did it,’ I’m going to object to it,” Curtis said.
Another person in the back of the room called out and said, “You’re presenting a false choice here because the Antiquities Act is used time and again,” the woman said.
“Let me ask you why you want the monument,” Curtis said.
“Because the monument makes it so that no new developments can actually be able to be built,” she said.
“When you say developments, tell me what you are referring to,” Curtis said.
“OK, my bill puts a minerals withdraw on the whole area,” Curtis responded. “My point is, why would you like that, because it is not the method that you would like to do to accomplish it, but it accomplishes the exact same thing.”
“Let me make clear that I’m not fighting the monument anymore than I’m saying we shouldn’t write the bill,” Curtis said. “My toolbox is a legislative toolbox. I’m trying to use the tools that I have to do what needs to happen. Was anyone surprised that President Trump didn’t pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, congressman of three weeks, what do you think I should do?’ … Just like President Obama didn’t call and say, ‘What do you guys think we should do?’ That’s the powers of the presidency.”
Three or four people objected at the same time and all spoke up and said that President Obama “did call.”
“Here’s the deal,” Curtis said. “I would love, and I will, continue this dialogue with any of you that would like, but this is the point that I would like to make: I absolutely agree. What we disagree on is how we get to that point … I don’t want the mining either, OK? I’m actually suggesting we bring in additional resources to take care of the (Bears Ears) area … I don’t have the tools of the Antiquities Act. Until we change presidents, I think we all agree we’re stuck with what we have here, and we don’t know, nobody knows, when it will change or if that president will be receptive to the Antiquities Act as resolution. So, what I am saying is, if you wait for that, fine, you can wait, but you’re rolling the dice … and in the meantime, how is the land being protected? It’s not.”
Another person in the audience called out and asked, “What level is your mineral withdraw?”
“The exact same provisions that were in President Obama’s — exactly.”
Curtis was asked what he thinks about the new tariffs placed on steel. The community in Grand County, for example, will soon begin the building process for the new Utah State University campus.
“I’m not a fan of tariffs and I’ve been quite vocal,” Curtis said.
Curtis also said that some people would like to spend their waking hours trying to undo what the current president is doing. Some people in the audience raised their cards that said “agree” and some laughed.
“My response is, be careful what you ask for,” Curtis said.
Curtis told a story about his “window of opportunity” to get an important message to President Trump regarding the separation of families at the border.
Curtis said that he recently had the opportunity to shake President Trump’s hand, and as he did, he told him, “In Utah, I want you to know, it’s all about families in Utah.”
Curtis said the president “is out of harmony with the values in Utah.”
OPIOIDS AND MARIJUANA
One man asked Curtis about the use of opioids and marijuana.
Curtis addressed the two issues separately.
Regarding opioid use, there is a national crisis that is killing thousands of Americans each year.
Curtis said, “It has our attention. We understand we have got to move on this.”
As for medical marijuana, Curtis said more studies need to be done.
“There’s a lot we don’t know,” he said.
The man followed up with his question by asking if Curtis sees a connection with the rise of opioid use and the “illegalization” of marijuana.
“Yes,” Curtis said.
A member of the audience asked Curtis if he thinks corporations are people, and asked him about campaign finance reform.
“I’m really curious about your position on Citizens v. United,” the man said.
Curtis said his personal campaign was out-spent by out-of-state donors trying to defeat Curtis in the election.
“The problem is, the Supreme Court has said that these companies can do this,” Curtis said.
Curtis said that his own campaign was financed with 85 to 90 percent of money raised within the state of Utah.
“The change in the Constitution is not something to take likely,” he said.
Curtis was asked about an Emery County bill regarding protection of Labyrinth Canyon. The man said that the east and west sides of the canyon are now divided in the bill.
According to the man’s question, one side of the canyon, the west side, is in Emery County, and the other side is in Grand County and isn’t included in the bill.
“If we’re going to have a big picture here that lasts for generations, that I can talk to my grandkids about what we did now, why are we not protecting the entire Labyrinth?” the man said.
“You’re not the only one to ask. The question that is asked frequently is, why are both sides of the canyon not included in the bill?” Curtis said. “The answer to that is … I want them to be in the bill, I think most want them to be in the bill. What happens is, the moment we take the Emery County bill and we move it outside of the county boundaries, we start to complicate it. Grand County has not gone through the same process that Emery County has gone through,” Curtis said.
Energy, water and Bears Ears among topics discussed at Star Hall event
“We have parts in my district that are going to be in a hard way constantly dependent on coal. I think we need to help those economies transition to a life without coal.”