Grand County Council chair Evan Clapper, Rep. John Curtis and Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus talked about air quality and the personal responsibility for ensuring clean air during a discussion in Moab on May 29. [Photo by Murice D. Miller / Moab Sun News]

Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus is pushing the pedal to the metal when it comes to clean air in Moab — bike pedals, that is, as an air-friendly mode of transportation.

Niehaus sat down recently with about 15 invited business owners and outdoor club members on the lawn of the Moab City Hall on May 29. The informal group was joined by Republican Rep. John Curtis and his staff, who, according to his press release, arrived on bicycles from Green River, a 51-mile journey. Curtis said his Moab visit was part of a larger itinerary for showing personal responsibility for clean air that began at the Utah State Capitol with a discussion with Gov. Gary Herbert the day prior.

By the time he arrived in Moab, he said he had used nine different forms of transportation around the state: a bus, a TRAX train, a FrontRunner train, an electric scooter, a Tesla electric vehicle, a UVX bus, his feet, a Prius hybrid car and a bicycle.

Niehaus also biked to city hall.

Curtis said he has concerns about air quality in the state and said he has made a commitment to bike to work 100 days during the year. Rep. Curtis is the former mayor of Provo and said during his tenure the city created the Provo Clean Air Toolkit.

“(I)t was an amazing toolkit, because it gave everybody (a clear and usable) path,” he said.

Envision Utah now has the funding to take this toolkit statewide as a Utah Clean Air Toolkit, he added.

Niehaus suggested that Moab could also have a toolkit that meet the city’s specific needs and goals.

Curtis agreed, saying that he thinks Moab “could be one of the incubators in the state, to lead the way and (be) an example.”

Curtis will consider the messages he heard from this group and others as he performs his political role in Washington, D.C. Another goal of his was “to point out the role of individual responsibility in the environmental equation. (There are) so many things that we should be doing as individuals that are already right in front of us — transit, walking, riding bikes.”

Scott Escott is vice chair of the group Grand County Trail Mix.

“Since (Mayor Niehaus) has come on board,” he pointed out, “our city has put concentrated effort into making it safer to ride (a) bike in Moab, and it’s paying off.”

Sharon Hogan, a Grand County Trail Mix committee member, commutes primarily by bicycle.

“I ride my bike to work almost every time I go to work, which is almost every day,” she said.


Sasha Reed is a researcher at the Moab office of the U.S. Geological Survey.

“The research I do focuses more on the chemistry of pollution and thinking about air quality from things like ozone … oil and gas development … the use of our vehicles,” she said. “I’m thinking about longer distance traveling pollution, like … nitrogen deposition … to inform decisions.”

Reed’s co-worker, Mike Duniway, said air pollution in the region originates from additional sources, such as desert dust. His research is providing part of the data supporting the growing concern over airborne dust caused by “fugitive dust eroding from the desert, coming off roads, (and created by) other kinds of landscaping activities.”

Duniway said that data show a lot more dust in our region now compared to a century or a century and a half ago. Part of the reason for the increase in the amount of dust is due to the number of visitors to the region who prefer outdoor recreation activities.

Orion Rogers, the environmental health director for the Southeast Utah Health Department covering Carbon, Emery and Grand counties, said the health department’s goal is to create better sustainability in the region through regulation. Orion said the “overall impact” of nightly rentals in the community contributes to air quality.

“… we’re charged with enforcing all codes that are put out by the [Utah Department] of Environmental Quality, including air quality,” he said.

However, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) does not monitor the air quality in Grand County or keep track of the particulate matter, such as dust, in the Moab valley.

When smoke from wildfires burning in the West traveled into the Moab valley in 2018, a DEQ spokesperson said the agency has no way of monitoring the air quality in Moab. The spokesperson said that without active monitoring to indicate air quality, sensitive groups, such as children and the elderly, should remain mindful of air pollution — if there’s a noticeable amount of particulates visible in the sky, sensitive groups should remain indoors until they see the pollution has cleared.

With travel, tourism and recreation comprising 20% or more of local government taxes each year, the economy is driven by the activities that generate the dust. Yet, dust could impact the economy negatively, for example, by limiting views of the scenic areas at national parks.

Information about air pollution from the National Park Service says “multiple studies show that people place an economic value on, or a ‘willingness to pay’ for, better visibility. … These economic benefits are usually a part of the cost-benefit analyses for air quality regulations.”

“Recreation is (Moab’s) soul,” said John Knight, a Moab resident who oversees a renewable solar energy company. “That’s what runs this town right at the moment … a lot of our problems with dust in the valley are caused by recreation without a doubt.”

Elaine Gizler is the executive director of the Moab Area Travel Council and she told the group that she’s happy to “support the mayor and her team on all sustainable efforts, minimum-impact practices or educational videos to teach visitors before they come here, what they need to do, how they need to act.”

Vicki Varela, the state tourism director, has been partnering with Niehaus, Gizler and Grand County Council chair Evan Clapper to talk about how they “can work together to create a sustainable tourism economy for the state.”

“I’m deeply committed to bring in the right kind of visitors who will value these beautiful vistas the way we do … and (to have) sustainable practices by our visitors,” Varela said.

Demonstrating the economic value, according to Knight, is necessary to shift people’s actions.

Curtis said, “If you look at the trajectory of the federal government, I think it’s fair to say that the trajectory is good. … but as administrations change and policies change, much of that change will be based on data that we’re getting from successful cities and states and counties. (T)he more valuable data that’s coming up from 50 incubators around the country … the better.”

Mayor, local officials talk about individual responsibility for air quality

“I ride my bike to work almost every time I go to work, which is almost every day.”