The year began with Donald Trump taking up the presidency and ended with him whittling down two national monuments.
In between, law enforcers tightened their grip around Salt Lake City’s homeless shelter and Honor Code enforcers loosened theirs at Brigham Young University. A media-savvy congressman left, and a dynamic Catholic bishop arrived. Jurors cleared a former attorney general in a monthlong trial, while flames cleared tens of thousands of acres in a four-week fire. The “Zion Curtain” (and a Mormon general authority) fell, the Outdoor Retailer show bailed, a University of Utah nurse rose and the sun and moon took a star turn that, for a day, eclipsed them all.
Here’s a look back at 2017:
Then-President Barack Obama designated one national monument in Utah during his eight White House years, winning cheers from monument-loving environmentalists and American Indians while eliciting sneers from monument-loathing state leaders and congressional politicians. President Donald Trump, in office less than a year, declared five national monuments in the state, and green groups and native tribes railed while Utah’s top brass and its D.C. delegation rejoiced. What’s going on here? Well, Trump actually cut the protected turf by about 2 million acres. Obama had set aside 1.35 million acres for Bears Ears National Monument to safeguard native relics, sacred spaces and scenic treasures. Trump — prodded by Utah officeholders, especially a persistent and powerful Sen. Orrin Hatch — sliced and diced it into two monuments totaling nearly 202,000 acres. Back in 1996, then-President Bill Clinton proclaimed Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Trump tripled the monument tally there, but he nearly halved the protected property, whacking it from 1.9 million acres to barely 1 million. Multiple lawsuits have been filed to reverse Trump’s actions, so the stage is set for a monumental legal fight, pitting the powers of competing commanders in chief.
After spending years on the defensive, state, county and city generals launched a promised offensive Aug. 14 against covert drug dealing, overt drug use and rampant lawlessness around the homeless shelter in Salt Lake City’s downtown. Operation Rio Grande began with officers arresting hundreds, sending some to jail and others to treatment. At times, cell space was sparse and rehab beds were nonexistent. But the bipartisan blitz proceeded, led by House Speaker Greg Hughes, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams (who even went undercover to get a taste of life on the increasingly mean streets), Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. Fences went up around The Road Home, crime around it went down, some homeless people spread out and vital Medicaid funds finally are set to flow in. Still to come in the multiyear, multiagency, multifaceted fight: three new, smaller shelters (two in Salt Lake City and one in South Salt Lake), stepped-up treatment, stocked-up affordable housing, expanded job programs, and more homes and less suffering for the homeless.
Not since the vampire craze of the “Twilight” days has a thwarted blood draw created such a sensation. On July 26, University Hospital nurse Alex Wubbels, heeding hospital policy, refused to let Salt Lake City Detective Jeff Payne get a blood sample from an unconscious patient who had been involved in a fiery fatal crash. A peeved Payne handcuffed Wubbels and escorted the screaming nurse to a patrol car. She was released within a half-hour. A month later, police body-camera and hospital-security footage of the standoff went public. The outrage was fast and furious, and viewer conclusions were clear and unyielding: The cop was wrong and needlessly rough. The nurse was right and admirably brave. The outcome: The patient died. Police policies changed. Payne was fired and a fellow officer demoted (they’re both appealing). And Wubbels, a former U.S. Olympic skier, reached a $500,000 settlement. She’s donating part of the money to the Utah Nurses Association and to advance bodycam transparency.
Chaffetz out, Curtis in, Hatch in or out or …
Rep. Jason Chaffetz went from a Fox favorite to a Fox farmhand. Not even six months into his fifth term, the Utah Republican gave up not only his House seat and his chairmanship of the headline-grabbing Oversight and Government Reform Committee but also his famous office cot. He’s hinting at a 2020 gubernatorial run but for now is working as a regular network TV contributor. Provo Mayor John Curtis took Chaffetz’s seat (but not his old bunk) by beating back a pack of dogged GOP rivals, along with Democrat Kathie Allen and former Republican Jim Bennett, representing the newly formed United Utah Party. There were some other notable political comings and goings: Provo elected its first female mayor, Michelle Kaufusi, replacing Curtis, and Sandy voted out its longtime mayor, Tom Dolan, after a quarter-century run. But the biggest question hanging over the state’s electoral landscape concerned its senior senator, Orrin Hatch. The 83-year-old lawmaker, and The Salt Lake Tribune’s Utahn of the Year, kept potential opponents, inside the GOP and out, guessing as to whether he would seek an eighth term next year. Until then, he has never wielded more clout. As Senate president pro tempore, he is third in line for the presidency. As head of the Senate Finance Committee, he helped guide Trump’s most significant legislative achievement: the largest tax overhaul in more than three decades. He persuaded Trump to shrink a national monument (“I’m approving the Bears Ears recombination for you, Orrin,” the president said). For his part, Hatch says Trump may go down in history as the greatest president ever. Trump and Hatch, Hatch and Trump — a powerful tag team that may not be finished yet.
The shows must go on — in Denver
This time, in this staredown, no one blinked. But Utah can hardly complain about being blindsided. For years, recreation industry executives warned that if the state didn’t moderate its public-lands policies, then it could lose those lucrative Outdoor Retailer trade shows. In February, they made good on the threat, packed up their tents and bolted. Bottom line: It was bad news for Utah’s bottom line. The twice-yearly events, a Salt Lake City staple for 20 years, brought gobs of visitors, about 40,000 a year, and mountains of money, about $45 million. Starting next year, Denver, Salt Lake City’s Rockies rival, will host the Outdoor Retailer shows, three of them. The projected annual economic riches: 85,000 visitors and $110 million.
Brian Head Fire
“We’re trying to fight this [fire], but it’s getting out of control. ... We need help,” exclaimed the 911 caller. “… It’s big.” It would get even bigger. The Brian Head blaze, at one point the nation’s largest wildfire, ultimately charred 71,000 acres, forced 1,500 evacuations, destroyed 13 residences, disrupted two resort areas for more than a month and cost at least $34 million to fight. Authorities say the flames accidentally grew out of a weed-burning effort June 17 by a Brian Head cabin owner. A man charged with setting off the fire is awaiting trial on two misdemeanor counts while state and federal officials gear up for a massive reseeding effort to reclaim the scorched earth.
Final act in the Swallow drama
An investigation by the lieutenant governor’s office determined that he had broken election laws. A bipartisan Utah House committee said he had hung a for-sale sign on his public office, fostering a sordid pay-to-play culture. But, in early March, eight jurors came to a different conclusion. After sitting through a four-week trial, they declared former Utah Attorney General John Swallow “not guilty” on nine counts. Those words wrote the final chapter in the state’s most sweeping political scandal — one that dragged on for four years, consumed thousands of investigative hours and cost millions of public dollars. In the end, Swallow was acquitted. His immediate predecessor, former three-term Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, had his case tossed in 2016. Both had proclaimed their innocence throughout. And Shurtleff’s “fixer,” Tim Lawson, died while awaiting trial. Seeds of a continuing investigation remain with no indication of when or whether they will sprout.
The curtains fall
In the Utah version of “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” Beehive State restaurants finally were liberated from the “Zion Curtain.” Lawmakers approved, and the governor signed, an alcohol reform measure that allowed eateries to remove the much-mocked 7-foot barriers that separated bars from dining areas. A number of restaurateurs couldn’t wait to take sledgehammers to the barricades. But, hey, this is Utah, and any liquor changes always seem to come with a catch. Restaurants without the curtain need either to maintain a 10-foot buffer or erect a 42-inch-high wall or railing — lest minors see liquor being dispensed. In another oddity, restaurants must post signs that read, “This premise is licensed as a restaurant. Not a bar,” and bars must have placards that say, “This premise is licensed as a bar. Not a restaurant.” We’re not done with booze. The Legislature approved the nation’s strictest law against drunken driving, lowering the blood alcohol limit to 0.05. Hotels and restaurants worry that the crackdown will scare away tourists (ad campaigns already are underway to spread that word), but Gov. Gary Herbert is open to some tweaks to (not removal of) the law before it kicks in right before New Year’s Eve in 2018. And, in a First Amendment case involving alcohol and sex, Brewvies prevailed in its lawsuit against the state. A federal judge ruled Aug. 31 that the theater can serve booze and screen mainstream films such as “Deadpool” even if they have nudity.
Two of the most prominent buildings on the University of Utah campus bear the name “Huntsman.” So any dispute that surfaces between the U. and the Huntsmans, especially one involving tens of millions of dollars, is going to make headlines. This one sure did. Here’s the Cliffs Notes version of what happened: During talks between the U. and the Huntsman Cancer Foundation about operations, fundraising and governance of the Huntsman Cancer Institute, U. Health Care CEO Vivian Lee fired institute CEO Mary Beckerle in April. Faculty members and staffers protested. The public demanded answers. The Huntsman clan, including the family’s patriarch and the institute’s principal benefactor, Jon Huntsman Sr., fumed. He lashed out at Lee and U. President David Pershing, and vowed to do what it takes to reverse the action. Barely a week later, Pershing reinstated Beckerle. Within days, Lee stepped down from her executive positions to become a tenured professor of radiology. In early May, Pershing announced plans to hasten his retirement. On Oct. 5, the U. board of trustees unveiled a new memorandum of understanding with the cancer institute. The school agreed to pay $68 million toward the institute’s operational costs, while the Huntsman Cancer Foundation recommitted to providing $120 million in new donations by 2025. With the conflict in the rearview mirror, the cancer institute can focus on its drive to, as Huntsman Sr. put it, “get rid of this disease and get rid of it forever.”
Doth Utahns protest too much?
For the newly elected Trump, the 2017 honeymoon ended before it began — perhaps not surprising since most Americans viewed his presidency as a forced marriage (Democrat Hillary Clinton outpolled him by nearly 3 million votes). A winter of discontent turned to season after season of anti-Trump marches and rallies. Even in crimson Utah — where the Republican nominee finished first but most voters cast their ballots for someone else — unease, displeasure and downright disdain for the new commander in chief erupted in wave after wave of protests. For women’s rights (about 6,000 people flooded the state Capitol). For refugees. For racial justice. For immigrants. For health care. For the environment (especially Bears Ears National Monument). Utahn Jan Chamberlin raised her voice against Trump by refusing to use her voice. She resigned from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rather than sing at his inauguration. After his swearing-in, the polarizing president pulled the plug on the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, putting more than 10,000 participants in Utah at risk of deportation. He enacted travel bans that slowed — and, in some cases, halted — the flow of refugees from foreign lands. Even so, polls show that Trump supporters are sticking with him and his pledge to “Make America Great Again,” though his style and substance grate on a great many others.
Tragic case of Gary Ott
The sad case of Gary Ott came to an even sadder end Oct. 19, when the former Salt Lake County recorder died in St. George at age 66. Ott’s private struggle with Alzheimer’s disease became public when news reports revealed that his then-chief deputy and others essentially were running the recorder’s office. Courtroom testimony noted that he had been diagnosed with dementia more than a year before he ran for re-election. While Ott, whose family negotiated his departure from office shortly before he died, has been laid to rest, the controversy lives on: A battle over his estate looms. District Attorney Sim Gill is investigating whether Ott fell prey to elder abuse at the hands of former staffers. And questions are arising anew about providing ways to remove elected leaders who are either unable or unfit to hold office.
On the faith front
Utah’s 300,000-plus Catholics got a new leader, and the world’s nearly 17 million Mormons saw a lot less of theirs. In January, Pope Francis appointed Oscar A. Solis as the 10th bishop of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. A historic choice, Solis, the first Filipino to head a U.S. diocese, wasted little time after his March installment in setting the tone for his tenure, challenging his followers to learn their religion, spread the Christian gospel and lift those in need.
In May, the state’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced that its aging and ailing top leader, Thomas S. Monson, no longer goes to the office and has turned over day-to-day duties to his two counselors in the governing First Presidency. The 90-year-old Monson’s absence was felt in the fall, when, for the first time, he did not attend any General Conference sessions. Also missing was apostle Robert D. Hales, who, after the Sunday morning session, died at age 85 after serving 23 years as an apostle and more than 40 years as a general authority. Another general authority made headlines in August, but for an ignominious reason: James J. Hamula became the first LDS general authority in nearly three decades to be excommunicated. The LDS Church also stepped further away from the Boy Scouts of America, dropping dropping Varsity and Venturing programs for older boys and refusing to open its troops’ ranks to girls. During the year, MormonLeaks offered a peek at how much top LDS officials are paid when it posted pay stubs for Henry B. Eyring, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and now first counselor in the First Presidency. In 2000, his salary was about $89,000. A 2014 memo put the “base living allowance” for all general authorities at $120,000. A church spokesman said all these full-time top authorities — from the highest-ranking apostle to the newest Seventy — earn the same amount. And, in good news for late-night-cramming students at BYU, the Provo school — following LDS Business College — lifted its ban and began selling caffeinated colas on campus in September.
Shake-ups rocked an offshoot from mainstream Mormonism. Lyle Jeffs, a one-time leader of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, was captured after nearly a year on the lam and eventually sentenced to almost five years in prison for his part in a scheme to defraud the food-stamp program and for fleeing. Members are fleeing as well, not from justice, but from their homes in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. Amid property disputes with a land trust, members are relocating in Utah and the U.S. And, in November, in a sure-fire sign that the FLDS grip is weakening on its border stronghold, Hildale residents elected a mayor and three City Council members who are not loyal to the polygamous sect.
Other highlights and lowlights
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. became U.S. ambassador to Russia (an intriguing post, given the investigation into Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election). … In December, federal Judge Robert Shelby gave majority Navajos a greater voice in San Juan County politics by approving new voting districts that could affect the makeup of the County Commission and school board. … BYU adopted a new Honor Code policy that grants amnesty to victims or witnesses of sexual assaults, an outgrowth of a Salt Lake Tribune investigative series on campus rape that earned the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize in April. … BYU basketball star Nick Emery left the team and the school — at least for a year — amid an NCAA investigation about whether a booster provided him improper gifts. … Gordon Hayward led the resurgent Utah Jazz to the Western Conference semifinals but, as a free agent, later bolted to Boston, where he went down with a broken leg in horrific fashion in the first quarter on opening night. … Staff Sgt. Aaron Butler became the first Utahn killed in combat since 2013 in August, when he was mortally wounded by Islamic State group fighters in Afghanistan. … From a firefight thousands of miles away to fireworks just down the street, those celebratory bombs bursting in air triggered a rash of blazes on July Fourth, prompting state lawmakers to consider new limits for setting off holiday rockets. … Former Utah Transit Authority board member Terry Diehl was indicted on multiple counts, stemming from allegations that he lied about or hid assets during a 2012 bankruptcy. Prosecutors repeatedly reduced the counts and, after some rulings from the judge, ended up dropping their case altogether. … Elsewhere in law enforcement, Daggett County jailers, including a former sheriff, were charged with abusing inmates in a bizarre game of Taser tag. Three-term Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder resigned to become Moab’s police chief; Rosie Rivera replaced him, the first woman to hold that post. … In October, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said police now will release body-camera footage 10 business days after an officer uses force that injures or kills someone; some watchdog groups say that’s still not fast enough. … Controversial conservative commentator Ben Shapiro spoke at the University of Utah in September, spawning protests, counterprotests and few minor scuffles. … The U. campus went on lockdown for a number of tense hours, and classes were canceled on Halloween after a student, ChenWei Guo, was gunned down at the mouth of nearby Red Butte Canyon. The alleged shooter was caught later at Salt Lake City’s downtown library. … Trailblazer Christine Durham, the first woman on the Utah Supreme Court, retired in November after 35 years as a justice. The 72-year-old served as chief justice from 2002 to 2012. … Utah County Commissioner Greg Graves found himself caught in the #MeToo net in December, when he was accused of sexual harassment and bullying. An investigator couldn’t substantiate one harassment assertion, but he did find evidence of retaliation. Since then, other allegations have surfaced and calls for him to resign have grown. … On the education front, crews tore down a South Salt Lake landmark, 110-year-old Granite High; salary wars broke out as districts competed for teachers; and Our Schools Now ramped up its campaign to put a $750 million tax proposal to boost public education on the 2018 ballot. On the celestial side, one event, ahem, eclipsed them all: On Aug. 21, the moon blacked out the sun, darkening the morning while brightening everyone’s day.
Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a son of Jon Huntsman Sr. and brother of Jon Huntsman Jr., is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.