San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman clinches GOP nomination to replace retiring Rep. Mike Noel

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Phil Lyman listens as others speak during the public meeting at the Bluff Community Center, Saturday, July 16, 2016.

Conservative firebrand Phil Lyman, a powerful anti-federal-government voice in rural Utah, secured a spot on the November ballot during Saturday’s state GOP convention, soundly defeating his only Republican opponent in the House race to replace the retiring — and likewise outspoken — Rep. Mike Noel.

“I wasn’t looking for a life in politics at all,” Lyman told delegates. “I just could not sit on my hands.”

Clinching the Republican nomination makes the southern Utah candidate the clear front-runner in the general election. No Democrat filed in the race, so he faces only unaffiliated hopeful Marsha Holland, a historian from Tropic and owner of a tour guide company near Bryce Canyon National Park.

Lyman has served on the San Juan County Commission for seven years. His position was put into doubt this year, though, when a federal judge redrew the voting districts to give Navajos, who tend to affiliate as Democrats, a significant majority of voters in two of three commission districts — including Lyman’s — and three of five school board seats.

Lyman has said the new boundaries specifically targeted him because U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby, who oversaw the change, also presided over the case in which the commissioner was convicted of a misdemeanor for leading an ATV ride onto public lands in Recapture Canyon that were closed to protect ancient American Indian dwellings. He spent 10 days in jail.

“We had a protest that led to some false allegations, some false charges,” Lyman said Saturday. “And I was proud to serve that [jail] time. I would do it again for that cause.”

His declaration was met by cheers and claps from the 61 state delegates filed into a small room of the Maverik Center to vote in the race for House District 73 — which spans several of Utah’s rural and redrock counties. Lyman won by 72 percent over Kelly Stowell, a Kanab resident and son of former state Sen. Dennis Stowell.

Stowell had tried to gather signatures to force a primary by going the alternative route to the ballot, but he fell short by about 50 names. He joked that the two candidates should have settled the contest with an ATV race. “It’d be a lot funner.”

“I’d have to borrow one,” Lyman joked.

“I’ve got two,” Stowell responded.

The two candidates overlapped on public policy with both focused primarily on public lands. They argued against federal control. They favored President Donald Trump downsizing the two national monuments at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Stowell said there need to be rules in place “so we can’t have these big land grabs happen again.” Lyman held up a colorful ruler that showed how much land in the average rural county is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the National Park Service or designated by the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration. The small fraction of private property remaining, he said, “is the short end of the stick.”

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that our economy is tied to this public land,” Lyman added.

He stood at the front of the room next to Noel, who introduced the candidate as “an outstanding man” and the one he wants to take his place in the Legislature. The two have long been friends. They both went to the Utah Capitol to watch Trump sign the executive orders to shrink the monuments. Noel had the president sign his tie; Lyman wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab delights in having his tie signed by U.S. President Donald Trump at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, following Trump's signing of two presidential proclamations to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

Noel also floated the idea this year that he would seek a presidential pardon for Lyman. “Phil has taken a lot of flak in his life,” the retiring representative said Saturday.

Holland, Lyman’s remaining opponent after the convention, said he’ll make for “interesting competition.” She joined the race to stand for honesty and integrity, which she believes are “missing these days from the Republican Party.”

She wants to improve education in rural communities, update emergency services for some of the more remote corners of the state and create more jobs and housing.

“I know I’m not well-known politically,” Holland said. “But I’m active in the community.”

Lyman is a descendant of the Mormon ranching family that settled in the small town of Blanding in 1905. He’s running for election amid a flood of departures and retirements from the Legislature.

He promised to pick up where Noel left off, championing mining and logging.

“It’s not the trails. It’s not a few acres,” he said. “It’s a cause. It’s a principle.”