Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Maryland Democrat build political bridge in Utah

Published: Monday, Aug. 4 2014 2:30 p.m. MDT

Utah Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, left, takes in an evening cruise on the Colorado River in Moab with U.S. Congressmen Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, Elijah Cummings, D-Md., on Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014.

Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Deseret News

MOAB — One of the most influential East Coast Democrats in Congress took a whirlwind two-day tour of Grand County, cruising the Colorado to a Sons of the Pioneers tune and taking in the splendor of the northern Window Arch at Arches National Park.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, said folks back home would still think he was crazy if he donned cowboy boots and a hat, but he acknowledged he gained a greater appreciation for Western issues. And that was the point.

"It has meant a lot to me to hear the concerns, see the landscape," he said, sporting a pair of loafers. "I cannot imagine hearing about these kind of issues in the future and not having a picture in my mind."

Cummings was in Utah Sunday and Monday at the invitation of Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who also sits on the committee with Cummings. Chaffetz toured Cummings' home district in early July, visiting an AIDS clinic and an urban center aimed at getting troubled young adults back on track.

Chaffetz said the two decided to "trade" visits to home districts to gain a better understanding of challenges that dominate the vastly different regions — and to build political bridges that seem rare in today's Washington.

“People want to see us work together,” Cummings said. “They want to see Democrats and Republicans work together. They want to see government work properly.”

Chaffetz echoed those remarks and quoted his House colleague: “I like the way he says it. We don’t have to find just common ground, we have to get to higher ground. People want results.”

The comments came during an hourlong town hall meeting in Salt Lake City on "The Doug Wright Show" on KSL NewsRadio, part of the effort to share ideas and the concerns in Utah.

"We have a number of issues that are uniquely Western, and to see, feel and touch them in person is critical," Chaffetz said. "I think we shared a wide array of issues, from the Endangered Species Act, to public lands to designation of a national monument, to economic development issues."

On Sunday, Cummings flew over coal country in Carbon and Emery counties, got a close-up look at Scofield Reservoir where a cabin ownership dispute is playing out with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and touched down in Moab, where he took an evening cruise on the Colorado River, not far from a federal removal site of 16 million tons of uranium tailings.

On Monday morning, he got an earful from a collection of rural county commissioners who detailed the critical nature of land-use decisions because of how much acreage in Utah is held by the federal government. And that was followed

Emery County Commissioner JR Nelson said the Antiquities Act — which gives the president the power to declare national parks and monuments — may have been a good idea in 1906, but not anymore.

"I have to tell you, don't let a president, by the stroke of a pen, create a monument and tie up this land," he said.

Lynn Jackson, Grand County Commission chairman, said revenue from a recent uptick in oil drilling has generated funds that paid for the building hosting the roundtable discussion Monday morning, and kept the hospital across the street from closing its doors.

The area, he said, was nearly crippled when the market fell out of uranium in the 1950s, and the county wants to ensure that its recreation economy is diversified, bolstered by mineral development.

"I don't believe the 1906 Antiquities Act was ever intended to do what is now being done," he said. "So when 14 senators from nowhere near Utah write letters to tell the president what to do with our county, we are very resentful of that."

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