Proposed President Trump highway turns into a dead end as Utah Rep. Mike Noel drops bill, says personal attacks wore him down

President Donald Trump listens to a question during a meeting with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, March 6, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

State Rep. Mike Noel has dropped his controversial proposal to name a southern Utah highway after President Donald Trump, insisting he had “enough votes to pass this bill” but was worn down by hundreds of personal attacks and death threats.

“If you say nice things about the president, you are somehow a despicable person,” the Republican lawmaker said Wednesday, pulling the legislation less than a week after it was introduced.

Noel had wanted to rebrand the 631-mile Utah National Park Highway as a way to honor Trump for listening to the state’s Republican leaders and downsizing two contested national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. The legislator was swiftly ridiculed instead.

One woman, he said, yelled a string of profanities at him that ended with a distinct “f--- off.” Someone else called him a “low-life.” A few constituents got his home number and said “foul, vile” things when his daughter picked up.

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, laughs as he announced that he moved to circle his bill HB481 in the Utah House of Representatives, Wednesday, March 7, 2018. He then added while explaining the move, "more like circling the wagons!"

But Noel stands by his praise of Trump as “a supporter of public lands” and contends he wasn’t “condoning things [the president] has done wrong” (such as the allegations of mistreating women).

“It was a hard, hard vote for my colleagues, even though the president has done really wonderful things for Utah,” he said, noting there was some reluctance over “the connotations with voting for it.” Certainly, there were critics.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, for one, said it “a little premature.” And Democratic Sen. Jim Dabakis vowed to mockingly amend HB481 to name the frontage road “Stormy Daniels rampway” in reference to the adult film star who allegedly had an affair with Trump.

Navajo Nation leaders, too, responded to the proposal Wednesday just hours before Noel killed the effort (though the lawmaker said he hadn’t seen their statement before he made his decision). They called it vengeful, hostile and, ultimately, paradoxical. Trump’s name, they said, shouldn’t be on a scenic route winding past five national parks after he went against the tribe’s wishes in slashing Bears Ears.

“To name a highway after Trump is like putting salt into an open wound,” said the nation’s President Russell Begaye.

FILE - In this July 20, 2015 file photo, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye talks with community members during a public meeting in Shiprock, N.M. The top two leaders on the Navajo Nation say recent suicides in communities affected by a mine spill have shaken reservation towns to their core. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times via AP, File) MANDATORY CREDIT

Five Utah tribes fought for the monument designation and consider the land sacred. They’re suing the federal government now to restore the boundaries.

The Olijato chapter of the Navajo Nation, which sits near both Grand Staircase and Bears Ears, urged lawmakers to instead name the highway after the late Ernest Yazhe, part of the famed Navajo Code Talkers who joined the U.S. Marine Corps and relayed messages during World War II.

“All of it is land where Native Americans have lived for millennia,” the chapter wrote, “and President Trump has not shown respect for native nations.”

In response, Noel said the highway “didn’t come close” to the Navajo reservation, which sits in the southeast corner of the state. But it’s actually less than 20 miles away.

Designated in 1998, the Utah National Parks Highway is a string of federal and state routes stretching across southern Utah near Lake Powell to Grand Staircase, Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands and Arches national parks. The bill would have ordered the Utah Department of Transportation to install 62 signs at major junctions, costing an estimated $124,000.

Other roads in Utah have been named to honor politicians, but typically it’s been for those with ties to the state and done once they’ve retired. Bangerter Highway was named for former Gov. Norm Bangerter and the James V. Hansen Highway in Davis County honoring the former congressman.

Noel, who has been in office since 2003 and is famous for fighting the federal government over public lands, doesn’t know if he’ll bring up the measure again next year. “I have no idea what I’m going to do after the session,” he said.

“It’s just created this divisiveness,” he acknowledged. “Any bill like this or anything to honor any individual, I’m going to make sure that there’s solid support.”