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Zinke said he would never sell public land. But Interior is considering it.

  • Author: Darryl Fears, Dino Grandoni, The Washington Post
  • Updated: August 16, 2018
  • Published August 16, 2018

The setting sun sets sandstone cliffs ablaze with light along Cottonwood Road near the Kodachrome Basin in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, on Sept. 28, 2017. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is proposing to dispose of federal land in Utah that was protected within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument until its boundary was redrawn by the Interior Department earlier this year – despite Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's assurance last year that he would not sell public lands.

The proposal to possibly sell 1,600 acres came to light Wednesday when the Bureau of Land Management released a plan to manage two national monuments that were dramatically reduced by the administration, Grand Staircase and Bears Ears, which is also in Utah. That would appear to directly contradict what Zinke said at his Senate confirmation hearing: "I am absolutely against transfer or sale of public land."

Interior's new management plan also would open about 700,000 acres previously protected at both monuments, the Salt Lake Tribune reported, to excavation industries for mining and drilling.

In a statement to The Washington Post on Thursday, Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said "the secretary still opposes the sale or transfer of federal land." Swift said the bureau is legally required to identify federal property suitable for disposal in its land use planning.

Opponents disputed the legal requirement. Under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, federal land should be retained unless disposing it is in the national interest, said Nada Culver, senior counsel for the Wilderness Society, a nonprofit group.

Federal officials only identify land when they actually want to dispose of it, not keep it, Culver said. "That's the important difference here."

Swift said no decision will be made until a 60-day comment period ends sometime in October and after the comments have been reviewed.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, Wash., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which held Zinke's confirmation hearing, recalled a second pledge by Zinke to protect taxpayer-owned land. "Secretary Zinke famously said that 'Not one square inch' of public land has been sold off under his watch. Now it's clear he meant to add … yet," Cantwell said in a statement Thursday. "This sell-off is an outrageous betrayal of the public trust and must not be allowed."

Researchers at the Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based nonprofit, were the first to notice the plan to dispose of the parcels as they pored over the management plan, which includes hundreds of pages. The researchers said some parcels are adjacent to the property of Mike Noel, an avid supporter of President Donald Trump who advocated for the reduction of Grand Staircase.

Noel's 40-acre property sat within the original boundaries that were drawn when President Bill Clinton designated the national monument in 1996. His property was left outside Grand Staircase's boundary when the Trump administration cut its 1.9 million acres in half. At the request of public officials in Utah, the administration also cut the 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears by 85 percent.

Noel, a Republican state lawmaker, claimed to not know of the proposal to dispose of federal land next to his own but called it "interesting," according to a report by HuffPost. He said the amount of acreage that might go up for sale – 1,600 acres – seemed low. Once a career employee at the Bureau of Land Management, Noel left the federal government after Grand Staircase's designation and fiercely fought it.

The lawmaker stood on a stage with Trump as he scaled back the Utah monuments and once proposed to rename a state highway after the president. Noel was one of several Utah politicians who gave Zinke an aerial tour of Grand Staircase, at one point flying over his house, according to the Western Values Project, a nonprofit conservation group. Supporters of the monument were excluded from the tour.

In an interview with The Post in February, Noel said he did not receive special treatment in how the boundaries were redrawn to extricate his property from the monument. "I never talked to anybody in Interior about changing the boundaries around my property," he said. "I will take the lie detector test if needed."

Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, said the optics of the planned disposal are terrible. "This looks like an egregious attempt to sell public land for the benefit of one of Secretary Zinke's Utah cronies," she said in a statement. "Interior officials specifically carved out land around Mike Noel's property last year, now they've made it official – they're trying to give national monument land away to their friends."