An inspector general’s investigation into the reduction of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument found that a controversial former southern Utah lawmaker exerted no undue influence on the decision to cut the monument’s acreage by half.
A longtime critic of the monument’s 1996 designation, Mike Noel, the recently retired legislator from Kanab, owns a ranch in Johnson Canyon, where 40 acres had been inside the original monument boundaries.
That parcel was removed from the monument under the redraw recommended by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, prompting allegations that new boundaries were drawn to benefit Noel.
Interior’s Office of the Inspector General dispatched investigators to interview Noel, who runs the Kane County Water Conservancy District and is a leading proponent of the Lake Powell Pipeline. They also interviewed Zinke, who left office under pressure last month, a Kane County official and eight Interior staffers directly involved with the review that led to the monument’s reduction.
The probe uncovered no evidence that Noel had any pull or that Interior officials were even aware of his financial interest in the matter, according to a report released Thursday.
“The employees also stated that they had been under no pressure to remove Noel’s property from the [monument]," the report said, “and had no knowledge of any financial benefit that Noel may have derived from its removal.”
Noel has maintained he engaged in no wrongdoing and denied he would benefit from having his property drawn out of the monument.
Zinke visited Kane and San Juan counties in May 2017 as part of a review of 26 large monuments ordered by President Donald Trump. Utah’s Grand Staircase and Bears Ears national monuments were the only ones recommended for reduction, adding to suspicions the review was a charade to curry favor with then-Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and to benefit the energy industry.
Various lawsuits challenge the legality of Trump’s monument reductions, while Democratic members of Congress introduced a bill Wednesday to restore Bears Ears. That bill would expand the monument to the 1.9 million acres sought by five tribes proposing it, far in excess of the 1.3 million acres designated by President Barack Obama.
The groups that requested the Noel probe found its findings lacking.
“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It’s hard to find fault when there is no legal rationale to explain how the president chose to shrink and modify national monument boundaries,” Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project, said in a news release.
“This report is incomplete and raises more questions than it provides answers,” he added. “It really highlights the haphazard process this administration used to slash protections for some of our most treasured public lands, a process that failed to adequately listen to all public and stakeholder voices.”
Investigators concluded that Interior had no existing process in place for modifying monument boundaries but that officials developed and consistently followed a new process to review the 26 monuments.
Noel did attend monument-review meetings with Zinke — in Kanab, Blanding and Salt Lake City — and toured the Grand Staircase with the secretary, along with Gov. Gary Hebert other state and local officials.
A former Interior official on the trip did not recall Noel ever talking about his property, the inspector general report said. Interior’s monument reviewers knew about private inholdings but were not made aware of who owned them.
“The former DOI official and other interviewees stated that the team made an overall effort to exclude private property from the redrawn [Grand Straircase] boundaries because this would enable them to remove more acreage from the [monument]," the report said.
Noel told investigators he never mentioned his property to Zinke. But he did tell the secretary he felt the Staircase monument was too large because federal laws already were in place to protect its resources without a presidential proclamation under the Antiquities Act blanketing an entire landscape.
Officials from Kane and Garfield counties had submitted proposals to Zinke that called for significant reductions to the monument, but Interior officials disregarded them, the report said, because “the proposed borders appeared to have been randomly drawn and did not consider the protection of objects under the Antiquities Act.”
The Utah Rivers Council also filed a complaint against Noel, hoping to determine whether the monument’s boundaries were shifted to help advance the controversial Lake Powell Pipeline, a spur of which would funnel water to Noel’s doorstep in Johnson Canyon. The inspector general did explore the council’s complaint, but its report did not touch on the pipeline connection.
“It’s clear that Noel was deeply engaged with the process to reduce the monument,” council Executive Director Zach Frankel. “What this report doesn’t address is what state laws he may have violated.”