Surprised by plan from his own BLM to unload land inside Utah’s former Grand Staircase monument, Interior boss cancels sale

FILE - This May 30, 1997, file photo, shows the varied terrain of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument near Boulder, Utah. The window opened Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, for oil, gas, uranium and coal companies to make requests or stake claims to lands that were cut from two sprawling Utah national monuments by President Trump in December but there doesn't appear to be a rush to seize the opportunity. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac, File)

Washington • The Interior Department has canceled a proposal from the Bureau of Land Management that would have allowed the sale of more than 1,600 acres inside the previous boundaries of southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The department’s deputy secretary, David Bernhardt, sent a memo to BLM officials Friday, reversing part of a management plan for the 900,000 acres that President Donald Trump removed from monument status in December.

Top Interior officials say they were caught off guard by the BLM proposal.

Secretary Ryan Zinke, a former Montana congressman who has insisted that he opposes selling off public lands, read about the management plan in the news media.

“The secretary did not see the proposal before it went out and was not happy about it,” a senior Interior Department official said Friday afternoon.

The proposed management plan would allow large swaths of the former monument to be open to mining and drilling, and the preferred alternative identified 16 parcels that could be sold to private developers.

Among these parcels was one adjoining ranch property held by Utah lawmaker Mike Noel, a vocal leader in the campaign to reduce and block national monuments.

Noel, who handled real estate transactions for the BLM during his 22-year tenure with the agency, said he never asked the BLM to make that acreage available and that he is not interested in buying more property in Johnson Canyon, east of Kanab, where he holds extensive land and water rights.

Tribune photo by Brian Maffly Utah lawmaker Mike Noel owns this ranch in Johnson Canyon on the western edge of the Grand Staircase-Esclante National Monument in Kane County. The BLM proposed selling 120 acres adjoining his property, along with 15 other parcels of public land recently stripped out of the monument. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke overruled the plan on Friday.

“I have no idea why they are proposing to sell that,” Noel said before the Interior Department announced it was pulling back the sale. An environmental impact statement accompanying the draft plan gives no explanation why those parcels were selected.

While serving as an influential rural voice in the Utah Legislature, Noel has been the state’s leading critic of federal land management and an advocate for shrinking the 1.9 million-acre Staircase monument, designated in 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton. The lawmaker had direct access to Zinke during the secretary’s May 2017 tour of Utah.

The land-disposal provision was among many in the draft plan that disturbed environmentalists, who decry the BLM’s preferred alternative as a giveaway to the energy industry and motorized recreation.

Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, called the plan “unlawful, plain and simple.”

“Trump doesn’t have the power to undo any national monuments; only Congress can do that, and Congress has taken the opposite approach by ratifying Grand Staircase numerous times over the years,” Bloch said. “With regard to BLM’s proposal in that plan to sell off public lands to the likes of Rep. [Mike] Noel, even if BLM walks this back, it only makes clear that the plan was raced through at a breakneck pace to try and do the most damage in the shortest amount of time.”

Nicole Croft of the conservation group Grand Staircase Escalante Partners said the plan represents a reversal of everything Zinke and other elected officials have said all along [when they declared] ‘This is not about mining. We are not transferring land.’ These were promises made over and over."

Noel said he suspects the BLM had sound reasons for proposing a possible sale of the parcels, especially if they were isolated and difficult to manage.

“Just because they identify it for sale doesn’t mean it will sell,” Noel said. “If the land is not accessible and blocked off by private property or up against a cliff, then what’s the point of BLM owning it? Isn’t the whole idea to have land that is accessible to the public?”

But Interior’s Bernhardt, Zinke’s second in command, says the BLM proposal to privatize these lands was “inconsistent” with department policy and would be changed.

“The failure to capture this inconsistency stops with me,” Bernhardt wrote in the memo, obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.

Bernhardt's memo says no public lands will be sold.

“As the secretary has made clear throughout his tenure," Bernhardt said, “the Department of the Interior is opposed to the wholesale sale or transfer of public lands to states or private interests.”

But Chris Saeger, executive director for the environmental group Western Values Project, said Zinke’s reversal on the sale amounts to a “sad admission" that the monument should have never been reduced.

“He should call this a good start,” Saeger said, "and restore all the protections he and President Trump lifted in the first place.”