Utah Rep. Mike Noel, the powerful, polarizing and anti-federal-government rural voice, won’t seek re-election, report says

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah state Representative Mike Noel, R-Kanab, watches Interior Secretary Sally Jewell as she speaks at a public meeting with the San Juan County Commissioners in Monticello, Thursday, July 14, 2016.

State Rep. Mike Noel built his political career on challenging federal land management, championing rural communities and sparring with environmentalists.

And now, after a rambunctious 16 years in the Legislature, he’s reportedly retiring.

“I have a new wife, a new life,” the Kanab Republican told Utah Policy. “I have 48 grandchildren, and I’m missing their lives.”

Noel did not respond Friday to The Salt Lake Tribune’s attempts to reach him.

His decision comes at the close of the 2018 legislative session, days after he dropped a controversial proposal to name a southern Utah highway after President Donald Trump.

On Wednesday, Noel told The Tribune: “I have no idea what I’m going to do after the session.” By Friday, he said to Utah Policy, “It’s been a great ride but 16 years is enough.”

Noel, who became a blistering opponent of the Bureau of Land Management after quitting it 20 years ago, actively bid to lead the agency last year under the Trump administration. While he ultimately didn’t get the job, the lawmaker felt he landed an even bigger win: getting the president to come to Utah in December, listen to the state’s Republican leaders and downsize two contested national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Three months later, wanting to thank the president, Noel proposed renaming the 631-mile Utah National Parks Highway in his honor. It sparked national attention, particularly with state Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, threatening to amend the bill to create a Stormy Daniels Rampway, a nod toward the former porn star who says she had an affair with Trump.

Noel pulled the bill this week, insisting he had the votes but was worn down by hundreds of personal attacks and death threats.

“If you say nice things about the president,” he said, “you are somehow a despicable person.”

As one of the harshest critics of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, the lawmaker faced a backlash after a Montana-based conservation group published documents last month showing that Noel’s company owned land inside the original boundaries of Grand Staircase that was cut out by Trump’s proclamation.

He had not disclosed the land-owning company on his legislative conflict-of-interest form, at least not by the name registered with the state.

Western Values Project responded Friday to Noel’s reported retirement by asserting that there are “ongoing investigations” of him. “He must still be held accountable for his actions,” the group said, “even if he is no longer willing to face the public as a legislator.”

But many will be sad to see the firebrand lawmaker go.

San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams said “it is absolutely the worst news I’ve heard.”

“[Noel] has been a real warrior for rural counties, especially for San Juan, Kane and Garfield,” Adams said. “We’re going to do everything we can to talk him out of retiring. It’s not a happy day for rural Utah.”

The commissioner praised the lawmaker, also a farmer and rancher, for pushing to better fund small jails and county roads. He applauded his efforts to bolster grazing rights. And he credited him for “fighting to keep public land access open.”

“It’s much, much more than Bears Ears,” Adams said. Noel, too, stuck up for his friends.

Last month he floated the idea of seeking a presidential pardon for San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, who had been convicted for leading a protest ATV ride through Recapture Canyon near Monticello, which had been closed to motorized traffic.

The three of them — Noel, Adams and Lyman — share similar views on federal land policies and went to the Utah Capitol to watch Trump sign the executive orders to shrink the monuments. Noel had the president sign his tie, Adams his cowboy hat that read “Make San Juan County Great Again.”

Where he found allies, though, he sometimes found critics. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other groups don’t see the lawmaker as a caring steward of the environment. He called them “the tree-huggers and the rock-lickers” and said climate change “has been used by organizations to fool people.”

“There was never a conservation opportunity that he didn’t oppose,” said SUWA spokesman Mathew Gross. “Ultimately, he represented a bygone era.”

Still, even some Democrats, who strongly disagree with Noel in policy, defended him as a funny guy with a unique approach.

“As a person, he’s got to be one of the kindest I’ve ever met,” said state Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City.

Noel, who led the powerful House Rules Committee, helped Romero secure $1.2 million in funding last year so that all rape kits in the state could be tested for DNA. “I think a lot of people are unaware that he was a driving force behind [that] … when it looked like I wasn’t going to get anything,” she said.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said despite clashing with Noel on legislation, he was “very colorful” during debates. Plenty of photos taken from the floor confirm that, showing the lawmaker with a huge grin or in the middle of a big laugh.

“There’s nobody quite like him,” King added.

Last year, when former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon reportedly wanted to finance a candidate to unseat seven-term Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (who has since announced he would not seek re-election), Noel said he’d consider a campaign.

He acknowledged that he’s “a lot like Trump” and felt he could bring up ideas not typically aired on a national platform. “It’s certainly an opportunity when you have a race like that to get some of these issues out,” Noel said.

“I’m really not afraid to say what I believe.”

On that note, it’d be hard for anyone to disagree.