On Friday, Aug. 17, the department’s second in command sent a memo to BLM officials reversing part of a management plan involving 900,000 acres of land that the Trump administration had removed from monument status in December. David Bernhardt, deputy secretary, said top administrators were caught off guard by the plan. Secretary Ryan Zinke said he learned about the management plan in the news.
“The secretary did not see the proposal before it went out and was not happy about it,” a senior Interior Department official said Aug. 17, after the Salt Lake Tribune obtained a memo about the matter. The proposal would have allowed up to 16 parcels of public land to be sold to private buyers, and large portions to be leased for natural resource extraction.
Interestingly, one of those parcels adjoins a ranch owned by Utah lawmaker Mike Noel who has at times advocated against federal public lands management. Noel is a longtime Utah legislator and 22-year veteran of the BLM who handled real estate matters. He is retiring from office, and one of the candidates for his replacement in the legislature is San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman of Blanding who has criticized federal lands management, particularly in Recapture Canyon and the Bears Ears National Monument.
Noel told the Tribune that he never asked the BLM to sell public lands there, and that he is not interested in buying more property in Johnson Canyon, east of Kanab, where he holds extensive land and water rights. “I have no idea why they are proposing to sell that,” Noel said prior to the Interior Department announcing it would revoke the sale. An environmental impact statement accompanying the draft plan gives no explanation why those parcels were selected, according to the Tribune.
Noel has long advocated shrinking the 1.9 million-acre Staircase monument, designated in 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton. He had direct access to Zinke during Zinke’s tour of Utah in May of 2017.
“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,” the Tribune wrote. 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. 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.”
Noel said in the Tribune that the BLM had reasonable arguments to sell some parcels, especially if they were isolated and hard 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 Deputy Interior Secretary Bernhardt says the BLM proposal to privatize the lands was “inconsistent” with department policy and that no parcels will be sold. In the memo obtained by the Tribune, he said, “The failure to capture this inconsistency stops with me,” Bernhardt wrote. “As the secretary has made clear throughout his tenure, the Department of the Interior is opposed to the wholesale sale or transfer of public lands to states or private interests.”