The Herd Bull of the House | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

May 13, 2015 News » Cover Story

The Herd Bull of the House 

Southern Utah lawmaker Mike Noel has a reputation for hating wilderness, but he sure does love open spaces

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In his faded bluejeans, with specks of hay on his shirt and cow dung on his battered brown boots, Mike Noel swings a leg over his ATV and rattles off facts about the cattle market, his hay-growing operation and the drought.

A few low clouds are strung out in the fat, blue sky in Johnson Canyon on the outskirts of Kanab, where Noel, a 13-year Republican state representative, rules the roost on his 700-acre ranch. Here, Noel seems about as close to heaven as any Earth-bound creature.

But there is a static to Noel's joy, and all it takes is a glance to the east for him to view the cause: the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, a vast chunk of sandstone and desert that Noel believes is being mismanaged by federal land managers.

Noel can rattle off dozens of rules and regulations imposed by federal bureaucrats that he finds ridiculous.

And on this Tuesday morning in April, an hour after parsing out a 1,500-pound bale of hay to his 150-head cattle herd, Noel can think of two rules in particular he doesn't like—and they have to do with fire and poop.

"On this ground out here, when you build a fire, you're supposed to take a tin pan and you're supposed to build your fire in this tin pan," he says. "That doesn't even make sense to have to pack a tin pan."

And when venturing into Paria Canyon, where hikers must now obtain permits from the Bureau of Land Management before stepping onto the sand, Noel moves between laughter and disgust as he explains that hikers have to pack out their waste.

"If you hike down the Paria Canyon, you got to pack your own poop out. I mean, who wants to hike and go pack your own poop out in a bag?" he asks. "That turns the whole thing off for me that you gotta' go down there and pack your poo out. That's ridiculous."

Noel asks me what I think. I tell him that, with so many people and so little room to bury poop at a campsite, I see the logic in the practice.

Noel says he understands. He even sees the sense in it. Then, he says, "It's just not something I'm willing to do."

Mike Noel, the politician, has developed a reputation for his blustery style during the Legislature's annual 45-day session. There's too little time on the hill, he says, not to talk straight—not to tell people how he feels. His directness is often characterized as bluntness. And his bluntness is often interpreted as bullying.

Noel, though, doesn't consider himself a bully. But when cornered or attacked, Noel admits that he has a tendency to fight back. For many of his constituents in Kane, Garfield, San Juan, Beaver, Paiute, Sevier and Wayne counties—a sprawling area as big as some Eastern states, and home to a broad swath of Utah's red-rock country—Noel is the perfect representative. He is an uncompromising cheerleader for his country, Noel's country.

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Attempts by preservationists to set aside land as wilderness, which could threaten grazing, mining and logging industries—all of which presently provide (or formerly provided) good-paying jobs for his constituents—are dismissed, often with noticeable disdain, by Noel. And his colleagues on the House Natural Resources, Agriculture & Environment Committee often follow his lead.

But Noel, the rancher, the lover of wide-open spaces, solitude, sparsely populated places and his ranch tucked between red-rock mesas, hugging the western border of the Grand Staircase, has more in common with the average desert-rat tree-hugger than some might think.

From the white chair in his living room, into which he slouches down while munching beef jerky made from his own cows and sipping on lemonade, Noel can see, through the tall plate windows, the edge of the Grand Staircase, the object of his love and hate, and the crown jewel of his political career.

A few miles from his home, after checking on his cattle grazing on a patch of land owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Noel tells me to shift the yellow ATV he let me borrow into low gear and activate the four-wheel drive. I follow him up a steep, sandy pitch, over sandstone boulders peeking out of the Earth. "It'll flip over on you if you're not careful," he warns.

We motor through a juniper-and-sagebrush forest and stop on a ledge. To the east, hundreds of feet below, is Noel's ranch. Behind it is the Grand Staircase, its white sandstone cliffs rising above an inky red mesa. Spreading out to the south is the Kaibab Plateau, rising up and up into pine forests before dropping off into the unseen depths of the Grand Canyon. And, to the north appears a staggering uplift of varying colors and open land, terminating in a set of shining red cliffs—a distant edge of Bryce Canyon.

"That's why they call it the Grand Staircase," Noel says, noting how the different sandstone formations gradually change and step up. "It's just an amazing place."

A Bull, Not a Bully

Noel marvels at the landscape around his ranch, saying he doesn't like going to Salt Lake City. For one, there are a lot of people there, and for another, the air is a lot filthier in the city during the winter than it is in Kanab.

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Near a pond at Noel's ranch, Canada geese glide inches above the water. He straddles his ATV, rattling off the species of various waterfowl while recalling the decade that he ran the area bird count for the National Audubon Society. "What do you think about all this?" Noel asks. "Can you see why I don't want to go up to Salt Lake? I come back here and it's all smogged in, there in Salt Lake."

A couple of years ago, Noel says, he sat at this very site during a break from the session. He saw wild turkeys by the water, a bald eagle perched in a tree and a herd of deer on the hillside. "I said, 'What the heck am I doing up in Salt Lake City, man? I could be back down here.'"

But it would be disingenuous to say that Noel doesn't like being a legislator. Now in his 13th year representing Utah's District 73, Noel seems to revel in being the "herd bull of the House," a nickname that he says was handed down by his legislative colleagues.

Over the years, Noel has been a tireless champion for his district—or, at least, for the vision he has for his district. In step with his rural priorities that hinge on creating good jobs in mining, drilling, logging and ranching, he has become a capable foe of environmental groups looking to preserve swathes of the state as wilderness—hemming in natural resources that could be sucked from the ground.

Like many of his fellow lawmakers, Noel could sit silently behind the dais of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture & Environment Committee, hear out the concerns from environmental groups and citizens over the Wasatch Front's polluted air or opposition over oil and gas drilling in beloved, wild areas, but Noel speaks his mind.

And, on a fairly routine basis, Noel's words offend. His legislative touch is about as gentle as a jackhammer, a personality quirk that he says his children and wife would agree with.

In 2013, while testifying in support of an air-quality bill, Joro Walker, an attorney and director of Western Resource Advocates' Utah office, caught the ire of Noel, who at the time was chairman of the committee.

Noel asked Walker if she'd ever sued the state—specifically, if she were involved in lawsuits aimed at the Alton Coal project in Kane County. Walker said she wasn't involved with that lawsuit—a comment that, to this day, Noel maintains was dishonest. Walker denies this, saying she was forthcoming with Noel's questions and told the truth.

At one point in the hearing, someone asked if Noel's questions are pertinent to the bill being discussed. He says that it's pertinent to him because, "I just want to know why she hates my grandkids and kids down there so they can't get any jobs down there."

David Garbett, staff attorney at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, says there's no reason to mince words when it comes to Mike Noel. He's a "bully," Garbett says.

"He's flamboyant, he's extreme in his positions," Garbett says. "I think he makes this debate very personal, unfortunately, rather than having our decisions be about what's the best policy decision. For him, it's like, 'Why are you trying to harm my children, what are you trying to do to my grandchildren? My grandchildren need to be able to drive wherever they want on an ATV,' apparently. And I just think that's unfortunate that that's the sort of dialogue, or the place, that he always wants to take these discussions."

Noel doesn't like to hear that he's a bully. "I don't think I'm a bully," he says. Then he recounts all of the instances over the years where his words might have been construed as being bully-like.

He remembers an episode years ago when he told a young woman working for the Utah Rivers Council that her bill wouldn't get his vote. Why? "Because you guys have been suing the state of Utah," Noel recalls telling the woman. "If you want to really get along with people, you don't sue the state and do this and that."

"Anyway, she started crying," Noel says. "I say, 'Man, don't take it so seriously.' I wasn't trying to be mean. I just told her, 'your bill's not going through.' She'd worked the whole session to get that bill passed, and I killed the bill. So anyway, I guess that's mean. I can be kind of a jerk sometimes, there's no question about it. Ask my wife—I can be a little bit obnoxious."

Noel said these things on a Monday, and by Tuesday afternoon, the thought of himself as a bully was still on his mind, and he wasn't near so apologetic for his blunt nature. He explained that there's a finite amount of time to debate issues on the hill, and that he doesn't like beating around the bush when bills arise that impact his district.

And if that means he's a bully, so be it. "Well, you know what, I guess when I'm getting bullied, then I actually push back a little bit. It's like I said, 'You spur me, I'll spur you back.'"

It would be easy to say, and perhaps many Utahns assume, that Noel is just some career politician who has made a pet project of the state's effort to wrangle millions of acres of public lands from the federal government. But Noel doesn't fit easily into this box.

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In between his heated moments on the hill, Noel is one of the go-to sources for lawmakers on the public-lands issue. Not only does he preside over a district dominated by massive patches of wide-open land and ranches, he is a rancher himself.

"He's been one of the leaders on the public-lands issues, as far as I'm concerned," says Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, who, prior to the 2014 session, took the reins from Noel as chairman of the natural resources committee. "When it comes to natural-resources and public lands, he's probably got as much knowledge on those issues as anybody out there."

Noel has the education and experience to back this up. He received a bachelor's degree in zoology from the University of California, Berkeley, which was signed by Ronald Reagan (a detail Noel enjoys pointing out); a master's degree in biology from South Dakota University; and completed some Ph.D. work at Utah State University.

And, perhaps more important than classroom experience, Noel cut his public-land chops on the ground as a 22-year employee of the federal government's Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency that, over the years, has become Noel's, and many other legislators', favorite punching bag.

A Political Birth

When President Bill Clinton drew a fat circle around much of Kane and Garfield counties in 1996, designating the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, the move created many ripple effects, one of which prompted a stalwart BLM official named Mike Noel to resign from his government job.

At the time, Noel and Clinton both had their sights trained on the same thing: The Andalex coal mine, which Clinton cited as a threat to the area's labyrinthine canyons and sandstone desert, making the area a prime candidate for protection. At the same time, Noel was the top BLM official in charge of hammering out an environmental-impact study on the mine.

According to the Utah Geological Survey, Andalex, a Dutch mining company, was sitting on 62.3 billion tons of coal when Clinton designated the monument.

"Shortly after that, I resigned because I didn't really like the way the management was going," Noel says.

But at one time, Noel loved his BLM job. And, importantly, Noel says he saw sense in the BLM's mission, as defined in the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976, which stipulates that the BLM manage land for "multiple use, sustained yield and environmental protection."

Noel's first job was to conduct range studies, a task for which he was given a BLM pick-up truck. So tickled was Noel that he wrote his parents a letter saying he "got the best dang job."

As his career with the BLM moved along, and Noel's job titles shuffled, he says he grew frustrated with how land was managed and how the environmental-review process for projects on federal lands dragged out.

And each time Noel watched a person lose a job, saw a shuttered business on Main Street or heard about a person who was forced to leave town for work, he took it personally.

After leaving the BLM, Noel was offered a full-time job as the general manager of the Kane County Water Conservancy District—a job he holds to this day.

In 1995, Kaibab Industries shuttered its sawmill in nearby Fredonia, Ariz. A year later, it shut down its operations in Panguitch. At the time of the closures, the mills employed 275 people. Had the Andalex mine come to fruition, newspaper stories from 1996 say it would have provided 1,000 jobs.

"When [the Grand Staircase] went down and we lost that project, which we thought was going to be good for us, and it was done over that monument, that really got me fired up," Noel says. "I got pretty vocal."

Noel's political life didn't begin in earnest until the BLM moved to close what he says are "thousands of miles" of roads, known as RS 2477 roads, which create a spiderweb across the Grand Staircase. To oppose the road closures, Noel formed a group, People for the USA, to battle the BLM. When county leaders declined to step up and challenge the BLM, Noel says he filed a lawsuit. And, soon enough, the county leaders that had contemplated giving in to the BLM, were ousted and Noel was swept into the Legislature.

"It just turned out that there was enough people that wanted to fight for those roads," Noel says.

These roads, many of which snake through riverbeds, washes and trails, are the subject of ongoing litigation. Noel says he's confident the suit will be settled in the counties' favor. And if it does, these so-called roads will land squarely in the hands of counties to do with as they will, making it more difficult for land to be protected as wilderness.

"Every one of those roads, in general, all those roads go somewhere and do something," Noel says. "They allow you to get around. They don't create any problems. It's a vast wilderness out there, really."

Environmental groups, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, maintain that many of the roughly 36,000 miles of roads across the state that are being challenged are little more than renegade ATV trails. And the effort to seize them goes hand-in-hand with another bid, Senate Bill 143, or the Transfer of Public Lands Act, which was passed by the Legislature in 2012.

Although the bill's chief sponsor was Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, Noel says the first draft of the bill would have allowed Utah, once it wrests around 30 million acres of federal land, to sell off large swaths. "I go, 'Well Ken, that's never been my idea and if that's the direction you're going, I won't be working with you on this,'" Noel says.

And herein lies the conflicting image of the Noel who says he loves wild land and the bona-fide political pro Noel, known to fan the flames of anti-federal government sentiment when it comes to public-lands management. And in the eyes of many, if the state of Utah manages to seize these federal lands, it's game-over for conservation.

But Noel just doesn't see it this way.

To Ivory, Noel recalls saying, "I'm not for selling these public lands. No. 1, all it's going to do is the highest bidder will be some wealthy guy that'll lock them all up, and no one will get to use them. ... I said I like the idea of what FLPMA tried to do, where it was multiple use and sustained yield. Where you took it, and you didn't destroy everything."

Noel says he plans to introduce legislation, the Public Lands Management Act, that would make it difficult for Utah, when and if the state is successful at taking over management, to sell off large swaths of public land. "There'll be pieces in it like FLPMA," he says.

Importantly, Noel says the state also shouldn't manage land the way it does school trust lands, which are treated like little more than a piggy bank.

"It is quite a bit different than SITLA [School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration]," Noel says. As he says this, Noel scans one of his alfalfa fields and the red-rock cliffs that hem in his ranch and embody the land that he says he loves so much.

"You're not going to sell these lands off," Noel says, training his eyes on his fields. "You'd have to cut my throat to sell off this ranch."

The Water Buffalo

If Noel is considered an effective legislator by his constituency (he's run unopposed in three of the seven elections he's faced—and, in the other four, he pounded his opponents, never receiving less than 70 percent of the vote), he's been even more effective at finding water.

Since he took the reins of the water district, Noel has overseen the installation of a series of water tanks that store 5 million gallons, 100 miles of pipelines and a number of new wells, bored into aquifers entombed within Navajo sandstone.

These projects, Noel maintains, have brought water-quality standards in Kane County's rural areas into federal compliance, while increasing reliability and providing an avenue for the area's businesses and population to grow. Near Alton, an area north of Kanab, the water district now serves 10,000 lots, Noel says.

All told, the district's assets hover around $166 million.

As severe drought grips the West, Noel has placed Kane County, his water district and Kanab on a trajectory of growth. While much of Noel's water work is hidden underground, his most recent, and perhaps most ambitious project, Jackson Flat Reservoir, shimmers on the horizon south of Kanab.

Noel is proud of the reservoir. As it began to fill with water diverted from Kanab Creek in 2012, Noel had trout planted in its waters. In late April, the local paper, Southern Utah News, published a photo of a fat, healthy rainbow trout caught there.

At capacity, the reservoir, which Noel says cost roughly $12 million and was paid for through a combination of loans and grants from the state and federal governments and water-rate increases, can hold just over 4,228 acre-feet of water, or roughly 1.38 billion gallons. Noel says the water will be used for agriculture and other outdoor uses.

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In addition to this new bounty of water, Noel has aggressively lobbied for the Lake Powell Pipeline, which would transport Utah's allotment of Colorado River water 140 miles uphill to St. George. If this multi-billion dollar water project is built (Noel says the state has already dropped $25 million on environmental review), the Kane County Water Conservancy District will receive 4,000 acre-feet of additional water.

This is the point at which Noel's work in the Legislature edges dangerously close to his work as a water manager, which also slams right up against his role as a rancher and a successful hay grower in what is, despite the seeming abundance of water, an arid desert.

But Noel says he's never been asked if his work on Capitol Hill clawing for the Lake Powell pipeline constitutes a conflict of interest. "It's a people's Legislature and everyone up there has something they'll do that will affect them personally," Noel says, explaining that, because he's technically a 1099 contract employee for the water district, he's not subject to the Hatch Act, which prohibits municipal employees from holding partisan political offices, such as state legislator.

Mike's Way

As Noel and Kane County officials have fought the Grand Staircase over the years, a seemingly inevitable force has begun to take hold that even Noel can't deny: Tourism is increasing.

On a tour of Kanab in Noel's Honda, which he bought new when he was first elected in 2002 and has accumulated 318,414 miles while traveling on legislative business, Noel points out the plywood skeletons of a new hotel and a pharmacy. A second hotel, he says, will soon break ground.

Noel says tourism is fine and good, but he shrugs off service-industry jobs, which he says are seasonal and don't pay well enough to support families.

Noel's battle cry for state ownership of lands, a mine in the Grand Staircase and more logging has grown stale with some locals, who say Noel could do himself and the area some good if he'd embrace his district's changing identity.

On a Monday night that feels sleepy across the few blocks of downtown Kanab, The Rocking V Cafe on Center Street has a waiting list. Customers sip craft beer and speak to each other in an array of languages. The cafe's owner, Victor Cooper, dashes around, delivering food and calling out to departing customers, "Thanks, y'all, for coming. Have a great evening!"

Cooper moved to town 16 years ago, and like many residents, he says that he, too, wishes Kanab still had only one stoplight. Two stoplights now glow on the main drag.

But Cooper's nostalgic sensibilities run only so deep. And he says Noel, the city of Kanab, and the county should have done more to adapt to a changing economy as it became clear that mines and mills were being changed out for hiking boots and campers.

Noel's fiery rhetoric over the years, Cooper says, has only fanned the flames of constituents who want to hear that someday mining and logging jobs will return, and that the culprit responsible for their woes is the federal government. Politically, Cooper says he understands why Noel does what he does. But for practical purposes, he says Noel could serve his constituents better by moving on.

"Is this really in the best interest when you're giving people false hope about, 'Yeah, well, one day the mill will come back'? It's not coming back. Mining is not coming back as a way of life. It's not. That's just a fact," Cooper says. "Politicians, if they spent more time trying to truly lead and do what's good for everybody rather than just to make themselves seem larger, I think we'd be better off, and that's for every party—Democrats, Republicans, everybody."

Susan Hand is co-owner of the Willow Canyon Outdoor store in Kanab, which sells camping gear, coffee and books. Hand says she opposes the Lake Powell pipeline, and calls Noel's reservoir a "huge evaporative pond."

"I don't think it was something that we really needed," she says.

As the reservoir was being built, an American Indian burial ground was discovered on the site, as were several ancient structures. Noel says $2.5 million has been spent so far on archaeological work, and the tribes were appeased with a nearby conservation easement, where the remains were reburied.

Hand says she took a tour of the site before it was inundated with water, and she feels the handling of the archeological site was "disrespectful."

On her tour of the site, an unsavory experience further soured her opinion of the reservoir. As she looked at the ruins, a backhoe "tore a pit house in half," Hand says. "That left a bad feeling with me for the whole project."

Like Cooper, Hand says she believes that Noel is good at being a politician. And because Mike Noel is so effective at getting work done, she wishes his talents could be used to unite rather than divide.

"What's so disappointing is I think that he is capable of doing so much, and a lot of what he does is create strife and division," Hand says. "Sometimes, I feel like he's throwing gasoline on the flames of dispute."

Burning Up

What Noel, Cooper, Hand, SUWA, hikers, ATV enthusiasts and hunters all have in common is a love for the land.

In his zone in Johnson Canyon, this love seems to saturate Noel's life. And what brings him back to Salt Lake City year after year, he says—the issue that makes him tick—is a steadfast belief that the federal government is not managing his beloved lands as it should.

"It's not any personal aggrandizement for me," Noel says. "It's to make sure that people follow what I think was the intent of the law. I've changed my ideology in terms of who should control and manage it, because I've seen that the feds can't manage it. There's too much going on."

Reconciling his seemingly contradictory love for wide-open spaces with his propensity to advocate for mines, roads and more families and houses in Kanab is a difficult riddle.

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I asked Noel what Utah will do to accomodate the onslaught of humans that politicians say will double the state's population by 2060. What then? How do you plan for the next doubling?

Noel, a former LDS bishop, says he believes people should be able to have as many children as they like, so long as they can care for them. But he admits it's a tough question. It's true, he says, that paving roads increases use on those roads. He's seen this in his own canyon. And it's true, he says, that the population is booming—a trend that will shrink the few spacious places that remain.

As Noel leans against the dilapidated ruins of the Johnson Canyon movie set—a patch of land where the television series Gunsmoke was shot, now owned by his children—he mulls it over. A truck loaded with fertilizer tanks—Noel's fertilizer tanks—rumbles past. A tourist from Nevada walks up to the ruins, and Noel gives him the quick historical details. He loves this place—his place—and there appear to be plenty of people in and around Kanab who feel a lot like he does.

Noel refers to them as his constituents. He likes to point out that they're a lot different than constituents in Salt Lake City. And, another thing about Noel is clear: Whether it's a bill on Capitol Hill, a water pipeline or a reservoir, Noel is good at getting what he wants.

And, even when he doesn't get what he wants, Noel and his people have a way of getting the last laugh.

When the Grand Staircase was first designated, Noel says he was at the Paria town site, near Paria Canyon, with a woman from the East Coast. Decades before, the Clint Eastwood film The Outlaw Josey Wales was filmed there. Noel says the woman told him that the movie set needed to be ripped down, because it wasn't natural. Noel told her more people came to see the movie set than anything else.

"I'll go to heck if they didn't tear that whole thing down," Noel says. "They built a plastic-fantastic Disneyland set and somebody came in—I don't know who it was, I honestly don't—and burned that sucker down to the ground, because they didn't want it there. They wanted the old movie set there. So it's just stupid stuff like that that doesn't make any sense. Doesn't make any sense at all."

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