The Interior Department’s internal watchdog issued a report Thursday concluding there is “no evidence” that former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke gave retired Utah state Rep. Mike Noel preferential treatment when he redrew the boundary of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
The months-long investigation by the agency’s Office of Inspector General came at the request of Montana-based environmental group Western Values Project. Investigators looked into whether Noel influenced the Trump administration’s decision to dismantle the protected site.
Late last year, on Zinke’s recommendation, Trump cut the 1.87 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante, the largest land national monument in the country, roughly in half. The rollback opened the door for oil and gas exploration and for other development.
Noel, a vocal opponent of the monument established during Bill Clinton’s presidency, advocated for shrinking the site and applauded President Donald Trump’s decision to do so and then tried to rename a Utah highway after the president as a thank you. He also owns a 40-acre parcel that was ultimately stripped of monument protections. Western Values Project argued that Noel’s failure to disclose his land ownership while pushing for a rollback of the monument was a conflict of interest, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
In their seven-page report, investigators said they interviewed Zinke, Noel and several Interior Department officials directly involved in the administration’s review of Grand Staircase-Escalante. A summary of the findings was obtained by The Associated Press in November.
“We found no evidence that Noel influenced the [Department of Interior’s] proposed revisions to the [monument’s] boundaries, that Zinke or any other DOI employee involved in the project were aware of Noel’s financial interest in the revised boundaries, or that anyone at the DOI gave Noel preferential treatment when proposing the boundary modifications,” the report states.
Zinke told investigators he was unaware that Noel owned property inside the original boundary and did not direct agency staff to remove any private property, including Noel’s, from the monument, according to the report. Likewise, Noel told investigators he did not ask Zinke or any other agency official to carve out his property. Interior staff had “varying degrees of knowledge” about Noel’s property ownership but said they were not pressured to cut it from the monument, the report states.
In an interview Thursday with the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Noel said that he “never had any doubt I would be exonerated.”
“I answered everything truthfully,” he told the newspaper. “I have never, ever brought up to the Department of Interior or the Bureau of Land Management my personal property holdings.”
Noel retired last year after 16 years in the Utah Legislature and is currently the executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District. Zinke resigned in early January under a cloud of ethics scandals.
OIG’s probe also concludes that the Department of the Interior “had no formal processes in place for modifying national monument boundaries” but that agency staff “developed a process and followed it when reviewing” Grand Staircase-Escalante and other sites subject to Zinke’s review. The president also slashed Utah’s 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent.
Chris Saeger, executive director of Western Values Project, said Thursday that the report is “incomplete” and “highlights the haphazard process this administration used to slash protections for some of our most treasured public lands.”
“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” he said in a statement.
The investigation did not look into the Bureau of Land Management’s short-lived plan to dispose of more than 1,600 acres of land previously part of Grand Staircase-Escalante. First reported by HuffPost, the agency’s recommendation ― buried in a draft resource management plan for the area ― called for the selling or transferring of 16 federal parcels, including 120 acres in between properties owned by Noel.
Interior scrapped that proposal within roughly 48 hours and claimed Zinke did not see the plan before it went out. Zinke said repeatedly during his tenure that he opposed disposing of federal lands, either by sale or transferring control to states.