Making of a Herd Bull — the Political Evolution of Southern Utah’s Mike Noel — by Todd Macfarlane

First published in Range magazine.

At conclusion of the 2018 Utah legislative session, Rep. Mike Noel, from House District 73—comprising five full rural southern Utah counties, and parts of two others—announced that after eight terms he was retiring from the legislature. “It’s been a great ride,” he said, “But I’ve got a new wife, and a new life, including 48 grandchildren, whose lives I’ve been missing. Sixteen years is long enough. I’m ready to move on.”

What he didn’t say is that based on recent events, he was in a position to leave at the pinnacle of his political career. Environmentalists, federal bureaucrats, and the liberal media, including High County News, jumped for joy. Farmers, ranchers, and local elected officials in his district wept in despair, insisting that he would be hard, if not impossible, to replace.

Just for the record, Noel has only been divorced once, and not from his first wife of 40+ years, Sherry, a dearly-loved registered nurse who worked in southern Utah for over 40 years when she died unexpectedly in 2016.

The Inside Track

Ironically, Mike Noel grew up as something of a “city kid,” in Ogden, Utah and started working for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 1974. He had a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of California Berkeley, and a master’s degree in biology from the University of South Dakota, and had done work towards a Ph.D. in range management at Utah State University.

Noel’s first assignment with the BLM was conducting range studies. He was given a government pickup, unlimited gasoline, and the opportunity to spend a lot of time in “the field.” Noel wrote his parents saying, “I’ve got the best dang job” in the world.

When Congress passed the Federal Lands Management Act (FLPMA) in 1976, it created an uproar among western ranchers, but Noel saw sense in the newly defined BLM mission of balancing environmental protection of federal lands and resources with the statutory objectives of open public access, multiple use and sustained yield. At that time, Noel was in a honeymoon phase with the BLM and the federal government—they could do no wrong.

By 1996, however, Noel’s attitude had changed. Never lacking ambition, drive and work ethic, after he moved to Kanab, Utah Noel acquired and developed a ranching operation—Flood Canyon Ranch— in and around Johnson Canyon, east of town, where he and Sherry raised their family, irrigating, hauling hay and punching cows. But they also watched the local natural resource economy of southern Utah and northern Arizona shrivel as a result of federal land-use policy and management.

From the inside, Noel noticed a huge gap between theory and reality when it came to actual land and resource management policies and practices, as federal land management agencies were slowly being infiltrated by people with an environmental preservation, anti-use agenda.

By the time the biggest employer in the Kane/Garfield County area—Kaibab Forest Products—had been forced out of business by new regulations to protect the mythical Mexican spotted owl, and had completely shut down its logging operations and shuttered its sawmills in Fredonia, Ariz., and Panguitch, Utah, there was not much bliss left in Noel’s marital relationship with the federal government.

Nature vs. Nurture—A Product of His Environment

Mike Noel the politician was born after President Clinton, standing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona with his Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Al Gore, Robert Redford and John Denver, in 1996 created the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, without ever bothering to consult or invite Utah officials. It is fair to say that irreconcilable differences had suddenly become the defining characteristic of Noel’s relationship with his employer, the federal government.

For five years Noel had been working as the BLM’s top official on an environmental impact statement for a large mining project involving a deposit of some 62 billion tons of low-sulfur coal. Known as the Andalex mining project, it was supposed to bring 1,000 new jobs to the region, and be a much-needed boost to the local economy. But the single biggest purpose of the massive new national monument was to stop the Andalex project dead in its tracks and tie-up mineral resources indefinitely. Noel’s half-decade of work was getting flushed down the toilet and it was the final straw in the relationship. Noel was ready for a divorce from the federal government.

So he quit the BLM, and took over as executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District—a post he still holds.

The local economy took an even bigger hit and continued to atrophy under the newly minted GSENM and it wasn’t long before ranchers and their grazing permits were under serious attack, and public access was being seriously limited as monument managers began closing thousands of miles of roads and trails that had been open to the public for more than a century.

The access issue really got Noel fired up. “Every one of those roads goes somewhere and does something,” he said “They allow you to get around. They’re needed. They don’t create any problems.”

That issue is what turned Noel into a politician. Joining forces with a retired cop/rancher named Mark Habbashaw, who ran for Kane County Commission, Noel threw his hat in the ring to run for the Utah State House in District 73, which includes all of Kane, Garfield, Piute, San Juan, and Wayne Counties, as well as parts of Beaver and Sevier Counties. “There were enough people who wanted to fight for those roads, that we managed to get elected.”

From the outset, Noel was a staunch proponent of states rights, and a vocal critic of federal overreach. Noel and Habbashaw worked closely together and became the driving force behind an effective effort to protect public access on federal land throughout the state—which really wreaked havoc with environmental preservation plans.

Herd Bull of the House

In an era when most state and local lawmakers go along to get along and give lip service to protecting local interests while being thoroughly bullied by the federal government on one hand and co-opted by endless federal hand-outs on the other, Mike Noel has been a breed apart.

In the process, Noel was dubbed by fellow lawmakers as “The Herd Bull of the House,” and became one of the most powerful and influential lawmakers in the state legislature, with a legislative touch that was about as gentle as a jackhammer. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Noel built an entire political career out of challenging federal land management, championing rural communities, and sparring with environmentalists.

Although die-hard constitutionalists and fundamental property rights proponents may sometimes question Noel’s fundamental principles, no one questions his effectiveness. His record speaks for itself. He was a moving force behind the “Transfer of Public Lands” movement, which gained serious traction for several years. Following transfer, he believed those lands should continue to be held by the states, with full public access and managed for multiple use and sustained yield. Under Noel’s vision and leadership, Utah took the lead in that movement, and Noel sponsored key legislation that had very broad support with Utah state legislators, the governor, and congressional delegation, all seeking to see much of the federal land throughout the West turned back to the states.

Unfortunately, that movement ground to a halt for two primary reasons. The first was a vicious and unrelenting personal attack campaign against its leaders by environmental preservation interests (as more fully described in Dave Skinner’s article—“Octopuses Garden,” RANGE, Fall 2018), which only seemed to invigorate Noel. “If you spur me,” he has said, “I’ll spur you back. When, I’m getting bullied, I’m more willing than most to push back.”

But the second reason was politically insurmountable—President Trump and his new Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, were against a land transfer. On that score, Trump’s election was bitter/sweet for many proponents of the land transfer movement, including Noel. But his consolation prize was huge success in shrinking two mammoth national monuments in his legislative district. Having President Trump autograph his necktie at the announcement ceremony was icing on the cake.

Political Legacy

Mike Noel never accepted the massive GSENM and its restrictive policies.  And he never gave up the fight. He fought the monument’s existence and management—hard—from start to finish, for more than 20 years. And in the end, following Trump’s election, was finally instrumental in seeing GSENM cut in half, reduced by more than a million acres, and broken into five smaller, more reasonable pieces.

Based on his experience with GSENM, Noel also fought against the Bears Ears National Monument, which was also in his district. Although he was not successful in stopping President Obama from creating the monument, following Trump’s election, Noel helped get it reduced by 85 percent, from about 1.4 million acres, to about 200,000.

When one of Noel’s constituents and collaborators, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, was targeted and prosecuted by the feds for conspiracy against the government by helping to organize an ATV protest ride in Recapture Canyon, Noel went to bat for Lyman, and his effective fundraising efforts ended up covering most of Lyman’s legal expenses. As fate would have it, Lyman will be replacing Noel as state rep in District 73.

One of the latest firestorms flared up after Noel criticized the Forest Service following a devastating wildfire at Brian Head in 2017 which consumed over 70,000 acres. Noel was quick to say that although a person may have accidentally started the fire, it was 40 years of mismanagement by the Forest Service that created the problem and caused the fire to become so big and devastating. “When we turned the Forest Service over to the bird and bunny lovers, and the tree huggers and the rock lickers, we turned our history over,” he says. “We’re going to lose our watershed, we’re going to lose our soils, we could lose our wildlife, and our scenery, the very thing these people were trying to protect. It is just plain stupidity.”

As a result of his outspokenness and effectiveness, Noel was loved by his rural constituents, and hated by federal bureaucrats, environmentalists, and the liberal media. They essentially declared him public enemy number one, and for good reason. Noel has been one of the biggest political obstacles to their growing influence over the last two decades.

Coy Stowell, a southern Utah rancher whose family received the prestigious Aldo Leopold Conservation award in 2014, says: “Mike Noel will be damn hard to replace as a state rep. He has been a pit bull in our fight with the federal government.”