Fightin’ against the feds is all in a day’s work
Mike Noel leans back and folds his hands behind his head, speaking easily. But his words are not so relaxed: “Once you decide to fight, you’re going to be in for the fight of your life. You got to have broad shoulders.”Noel is referring to his head-butting with environmental groups such as the Grand Canyon Trust and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. But he could just as easily be talking about his decade-long battle with the Bureau of Land Management over the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
In 1996, Noel worked for the BLM doing environmental reviews. He had just finished an analysis giving the go-ahead to a proposed coal mine on southern Utah’s Kaiparowits Plateau.Later that year, President Clinton designated 1.9 million acres, including the plateau, as a national monument. Anger erupted in the local communities, which had long relied on mining and ranching; schoolchildren released black balloons, and residents of nearby Kanab wore black arm bands.Monument designation also killed the coal mine and spurred tension between Noel and higher-ups. Eventually, he took an early retirement. “Essentially, it was a totally illegal action,” he says of the federal designation. “I had the audacity to stand up and say what the administration did was wrong. I had only five more years until retirement … but it worked out OK.” Noel emerged from the ordeal as a new leader; he is now serving his third term as a Utah state representative.Today, Noel is wearing jeans, a blue button-up shirt and a black baseball cap emblazoned with the words “Cowboy Caucus” for the group of conservative rural Utah lawmakers he leads. When he shows this journalist around the office – Noel runs a water consulting company, his main client the Kane County Water Conservancy District – he tells his staff, “[This reporter] wants to know why the enviros don’t like me.” An employee answers: “It’s because Mike gets things done.”
Indeed he has, pushing legislation from the innocuous – a bill letting taxpayers donate money to fix pets – to the contentious, including one that bolsters counties’ fights to keep roads open across federal lands. His main issue: public lands. Noel has surged forward with legislation, litigation and funding to keep public lands open to ranchers, mining and off-road-vehicles. Much of his work revolves around – or against – the Grand Staircase. Noel has played a key role in funneling state funds to Kane and Garfield counties to pay for a lawsuit over road rights in the monument.Noel’s 30-plus years as a Kane County resident color his beliefs. Here – in an area the size of Connecticut but with a population of just 6,200 – he has coached basketball and served as a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A former Boy Scout troop leader, he says, “I like to camp with [Scouts] and hike with them. Well, if everything is wilderness, if everything is locked up, you can’t even hardly go down into a wilderness area with a Scout troop. You can only take like five kids down there now. It’s just the whole idea that you can’t even use the public lands. It goes back to my belief that you worship the Creator, not the creations.”Noel, who was born in Ogden, Utah, grew up in the nomadic life of a military family, and then went on to study biology. But in 1975, he left a Ph.D. program at the University of Utah to open a restaurant in Kanab.
Once tourist season ended, he took a job with the BLM.Now, as a Utah representative, Noel is not afraid of conflict. “If you can’t take the heat,” he says, “get out of the game, get out of the kitchen.” And he believes in calling it how he sees it: “The strategy is to just keep standing for what we believe is right and if it’s a gray area try to seek reasonable compromises.”Nonetheless, his anger over the Escalante has mellowed some over the years. “I don’t have as much animosity as I used to,” says Noel. “I don’t like it, probably never will. It’ll just eat you up if you keep worrying about it. I’d rather focus on my grandkids.”The author just completed an HCN internship. This article originally appeared in High Country News (www.hcn.org), which covers the West’s communities and natural-resource issues from Paonia, Colo.
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