UPDATE: Aug. 17 ― The Trump administration has scrapped its proposal to pawn off more than 1,600 acres of federal land that until recently were protected as part of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the Salt Lake Tribune reported Friday.
The Trump administration is considering transferring or selling more than 1,600 acres of federal land that until recently were protected as part of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, according to a draft resource management plan published Wednesday, despite repeated assurances from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that he would not sell or transfer federal lands.
The lands “identified for disposal” in the draft Bureau of Land Management plan includes 16 parcels ranging in size from 8.5 to 591.6 acres. They are among the more than 850,000 acres that President Donald Trump stripped from Grand Staircase-Escalante late last year.
One parcel ― a 120-acre piece of land east of Kanab ― sits adjacent to 40 acres that are owned by Utah state Rep. Mike Noel (R) and which were removed from the monument. A staunch opponent of the Clinton-era monument, Noel advocated for shrinking the protected site and applauded Trump’s decision to do so. In fact, he unsuccessfully attempted to rename a Utah highway after Trump as a thank-you.
As the Salt Lake Tribune reported in February, Montana-based conservation group Western Values Project argued that Noel’s failure to disclose his land ownership while pushing for a rollback of the monument was a conflict of interest ― a charge Noel dismissed.
Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a Colorado-based advocacy group, told HuffPost the proposal “looks like an egregious attempt to sell public land for the benefit of one of Secretary Zinke’s Utah cronies.”
“Interior officials specifically carved out land around Mike Noel’s property last year, now they’ve made it official ― they’re trying to give national monument land away to their friends,” she said.
On Friday, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a nonprofit conservation group, posted a map that shows Noel also owns more than 200 acres south of the land that the BLM has identified for possible sale. The 120-acre federal parcel, if Noel were to purchase it, would give Noel a contiguous 420-acre chunk of land.
Reached by phone Thursday, Noel said he was unaware of the proposal but found it “interesting.” He’s all for having more taxable private land in Utah and said the total acreage proposed for transfer or sale struck him as “low.”
Noel worked for the BLM in Utah for more than 20 years and resigned from the agency shortly after Grand Staircase-Escalante was established in 1996. He’s been a fierce opponent of the agency ever since.
As the draft management plan notes, a tract of public land can be considered for sale if it meets certain criteria of the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act of 1976. Those criteria include being “difficult and uneconomic to manage,” it the land is “no longer required” for the specific purpose for which it was acquired, and if its sale would “serve important public objectives,” including the “expansion of communities and economic development.”
The 1976 law also allows for the secretary of the interior to sell such lands “with modified competitive bidding or without competitive bidding,” and to give preference to adjoining landowners.
Kimberly Finch, a spokeswoman for the BLM in Utah, told HuffPost via email that Zinke “still opposes the sale or transfer of federal land, particularly federal lands now excluded from the monument boundaries,” but that the agency “is required by law as part of its land use planning process to identify lands potentially suitable for disposal.” She noted that the draft plan includes various alternatives and no final decision has been made.
“It is the Secretary’s preference that land remain under federal ownership,” she said. “The Secretary encourages the public to comment on the draft proposal.”
The BLM draft plan does not specify why the parcels were identified for possible sale, and Finch did not respond to HuffPost’s questions about the selection process.
Nada Culver, senior counsel for the nonprofit Wilderness Society, disputes Finch’s claim that the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act requires BLM to identify lands for disposal.
“The actual direction in the law is for the BLM to keep public lands in public ownership unless it is otherwise in the national interest,” she wrote in an email Thursday. “And I think it’s safe to say that lands that are part of a national monument (even one that this administration wants to ignore) are ones that it is in the national interest to keep.”
Indeed, the law states that “public lands be retained in Federal ownership, unless as a result of the land use planning procedure provided for in this Act, it is determined that disposal of a particular parcel will serve the national interest.”
Trump and Zinke have repeatedly said they oppose selling off federal lands. In fact, it was over this very issue that Zinke — a former Montana congressman — resigned as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2016. In a speech one day after arriving at his new post, Zinke made a promise to Interior Department staff: “You can hear it from my lips: We will not sell or transfer public land.”
“There’s not one square inch, not one square inch, of land that is removed from federal protection,” Zinke told Fox Business in December.
Zinke repeated that point at a conservative event in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, on Friday.
“It was federal land before, it’s federal land afterwards,” he said.
Late last year, on Zinke’s recommendation, Trump cut the 1.87 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante, the largest land national monument in the country, roughly in half. The president also slashed the nearby 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent. The moves opened the door for oil, gas and other development.
In its plan for Grand Staircase-Escalante, BLM said that its preferred alternative “emphasizes resource uses and reduces constraints while ensuring the proper care and management of monument objects.” Compared to other proposed alternatives, however, it “conserves the least land area for physical, biological, and cultural resources” and “is the least restrictive to energy and mineral development,” the document states.
The administration has repeatedly said the rollbacks were not about energy or mineral development, despite several media reports that suggest otherwise. In June, HuffPost reported on a Canadian firm’s plans to extract copper and other minerals from the site of a former mine that was previously within the boundary of Grand Staircase-Escalante and off limits to such development.
This story has been updated throughout with additional comment and information on state Rep. Mike Noel’s land holdings in the area.