Rep. Rob Bishop talks public lands, running for his final term in Layton town hall


(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Congressman Rob Bishop during his town hall meeting held at Layton Christian Academy in Layton, Utah, Friday, August 25, 2017.

Layton • While Utah Rep. Rob Bishop’s town hall Friday night was much quieter and more subdued than those held by his conservative colleagues since President Donald Trump’s election, it wasn’t without a few sparks, boos and shouts urging him to “answer the question.”

Most of the pushback the Republican congressman faced during the 85 minutes was on public lands.

The audience members questioned whether Bishop’s interests were skewed toward oil and gas development. They grilled him over his support for rescinding or shrinking national monuments. And they accused him of disregarding the wishes of American Indians to protect sacred spaces in San Juan County.

“That is one of the concepts that is so bizarre to me,” Bishop responded. “Everybody’s telling me that I want to change Bears Ears so we have oil and coal mining in that area, which is ludicrous. There is not viable oil capacity or coal capacity in that area.”

Individuals in the crowd of about 250 people yelled “no” and “lies” as he talked. Many refused to accept his answers and waved yellow papers that said, “Protect wild Utah.”

Shelley Page, a reverend at Ogden’s Unitarian Universalist Church, believes Bishop should be more “in solidarity with the earth.” She was surrounded by conservationists clinging to posters that read, “Save Grand Staircase-Escalante,” “Don’t touch our federal lands and monuments” and, “Hands off Bears Ears.”

“Bishop does sit in a position of power,” she said. “We are hopeful he understands his moral obligations to the Native American tribes.”

The congressman, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, has long opposed then-President Barack Obama’s December designation of Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah, calling it an overreach of federal power.

He had instead proposed and drafted the Utah Public Lands Initiative Act, which would have protected parts of the region while opening other swaths of land for economic development. Bishop celebrated Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recommendations Thursday to reduce the size of “a handful” of national monuments, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

“There’s a rumor going around that we’re trying to sell off the lands. That’s actually patently wrong,” Bishop told the audience filling the bleachers at Layton Christian Academy. “The land in the Bears Ears monument is federal and will always be federal.”

The congressman said the president’s proclamation to protect the land doesn’t guarantee co-management with the tribes and allows government managers to “arbitrarily change what the standards will be.”

One man screamed, “It‘s against the law,” prompting one of the six security guards standing nearby to issue a warning and encourage him to quiet down. Others in the crowd called into question where the congressman’s campaign contributions come from — $150,516 from oil and gas industries in the buildup to the 2016 election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Bishop brushed that off, saying, “I will vote the way I believe regardless.”

“I will take contributions from anyone,” he added. “I will take contributions from abortion groups, but I don’t vote for that.”

Throughout the night, the congressman got more cheers and claps than heckles and hisses. He answered 35 questions ranging from Trump, to a government shutdown, to a border wall between the United States and Mexico, to tearing down Confederate statues.

He got hearty applause for pledging to run for office just one more time.

“Someone will replace me, and they will be just as good,” he said. “One more term. That’s it.”

The response wasn’t so kind when Bishop said moving to impeach Trump, whom he voted for, would be futile — just as he believed it would have been for Obama. Either the president “would become more popular” from the proceedings, he said, or Vice President Mike Pence would take office and “it would be the same thing.”

His tame event comes months after a handful of tense town halls by Utah leaders — and elected officials nationwide — marked by tough questioning and protesters. In February, then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz hosted a hostile crowd in Cottonwoods Heights that demanded: “Explain yourself.” After that, the Utah Republican Party chairman warned representatives to skip live forums, calling the Cottonwood Heights event “violent” and unsafe — an assessment different from that of police and Chaffetz.

A month later, Rep. Chris Stewart faced 1,000 people in Salt Lake City who shouted, “Do your job” and repeatedly yelled over his answers. His second venture in May, with a largely Republican and rural audience 160 miles from the state’s more Democratic capital, was much calmer.

Bishop now joins Stewart and Chaffetz, who has since left office, as the members of Utah’s all-Republican congressional delegation to hold an in-person town hall this year. Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch have chatted online with constituents, while Rep. Mia Love has tried “open office hours” for small groups of constituents as an alternative format.

Pam Harrison, a team leader for Indivisible Ogden, an activist group formed in the wake of Trump’s election, said she’s been “nagging for a very, very long time” for Bishop to hold a town hall. His event Friday was the second of two this week; the first was Thursday in his hometown of Brigham City.

Harrison attended both and found the congressman’s format “very discouraging.” The audience submitted questions on postcards and Bishop read them out loud. A few attendees were allowed to make statements into the microphone while a staff member stood nearby.

Several questions, Bishop acknowledged, were “outside my purview.” He set those papers in a separate stack, vowing to address them after some research. The topics he didn’t have an answer for included illicit drug sales in Utah, Homeland Security employment practices and Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff pardoned by Trump on Friday and known for profiling undocumented immigrants.

Bishop, a former history teacher, did address the Environmental Protection Agency, suggesting it should “come up with real science” to support its clean-air regulations. He championed Utah’s Hill Air Force Base as “important to the nation.” And he declared Obamacare “on a road to failure.”

The congressman got nearly 70 percent of the vote in Davis County in his most recent election (with 66 percent districtwide), easily lending him a friendly crowd Friday night. Several individuals wore Make America Great Again hats, a Trump fan staple.

Bishop — whose sprawling 1st Congressional District covers the northern part of the state and stretches from Box Elder County to Uintah County, including Ogden and Logan — called out the audience for being disruptive a few times, asking it to hush so he could respond. By the end, he thanked the attendees for “the manner in which you have conducted yourself.”