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State Rep. Mike Noel is rallying conservative leaders in Utah and around the West, pulling out the stops in his bid to become President-elect Donald Trump's director of the Bureau of Land Management, an agency where he once worked but since has criticized loudly and often.
Noel is lining up support from Sen. Orrin Hatch, Gov. Gary Herbert, prominent public-land access organizations and off-road groups, making the case that Noel should be put in charge of the agency that manages more than a quarter billion acres of federal land across the country.
"I would say I'm going to be on the short list," Noel said. "I don't know this for positive, but I'm very confident that I'm going to be looked at based on all the support I've received."
Noel has already received endorsement letters from Attorney General Sean Reyes, former BLM director Kathleen Clarke and the support of the Western States Sheriffs Association, off-road advocates like the Utah Shared Access Alliance and Blue Ribbon Coalition, and the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.
He said Hatch has weighed in on his behalf and Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox have committed to writing letters on his behalf. He also has the support of Don Peay, the state director for Trump's Utah campaign and a friend of Trump's sons.
"I can't think of a finer person and public servant to fill that role," Reyes wrote. "Representative Noel has the skill set, experience and characteristics that uniquely qualify him for such a critical position for our nation."
Clarke wrote that, for Westerners, "President Trump will make no more important nomination than that of the Director of the BLM, and he will find no one better for the job than Mike Noel."
But Noel's strident criticism of the bureau, along with his animosity toward environmental groups that work to preserve public lands, have some questioning his suitability for the post.
"It would be like having an atheist teach Sunday school," said Pat Shea, who was the national BLM director during part of President Bill Clinton's administration.
"He does not believe in the fundamental tenets of [the agency]," Shea said. "As with many of Trump's appointments, they're more interested in dismantling things than making them work. So my worry is that, even in areas that Mike and I might agree, his management style and personality would cripple an agency that for Utah and for all of the Western states is a key partner in making our economy work."
Shea said that BLM employees he still talks to cringe at the thought of Noel at the helm; although Noel says some of his most ardent supporters are BLM employees who believe the agency needs a new direction.
Noel has sponsored legislation in Utah that would disband the BLM's law-enforcement arm, which he charges uses automatic weapons and flak jackets to intimidate residents, forcing the agency to work through the local sheriffs to protect lands and resources.
He has been a leader in Utah's push to demand the federal government relinquish 30 million acres of land much of it controlled by BLM in Utah.
He sought state funds to defend San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, who was convicted of leading an illegal ATV ride in southern Utah, and earlier supported Kane County when residents tore down signs marking closed-off roads.
Noel has been one of the most vocal critics of a proposal to have President Barack Obama designate a Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, suggesting allegations of looted artifacts are really the work of badgers. He also defended a group of southern Utah residents who were arrested and tried for trafficking in stolen Indian artifacts.
But Noel said he is a voice of reason against an agency that has run amok and is destroying rural Utah's way of life.
Noel worked for the BLM for roughly two decades, near the end of his career serving as the project manager for the proposed Andalex coal mine, which was scuttled when President Clinton designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Shortly after, Noel left the agency, saying he didn't feel like it was a good fit, and since then has served as the executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District.
Noel blames radical environmental groups for co-opting the BLM into doing their bidding, whether it's shutting down roads or cutting off grazing rights or stifling oil and gas drilling.
"It's not a matter of just saying no to everything," Noel said. "Right now, [the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance] is running the BLM and the Grand Canyon Trust is running the Forest Service, and they're just not good managers."
Noel said the timing is right for him to make a bid for the job. His children are grown and his wife died suddenly in January.
Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, said Noel's blend of experience, as a former BLM employee and a rancher, brings a perspective to the agency that has been lacking during the Obama administration. As chairman of the Legislature's Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands, Stratton and his co-chairman Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, plan to write a letter in support of Noel.
Stratton is also sponsoring legislation in the upcoming session urging Reyes to move quickly to sue the federal government in a bid to force it to turn over to the state control of public lands a lawsuit Noel isn't sure should move forward so quickly.
He wants to wait a few years in hopes that Trump will get to name two or perhaps three justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. The state will only get one shot at its lawsuit, Noel reasons, and it needs to be in the best position to succeed.