Interior investigators clear former Utah lawmaker Noel
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — There is no evidence that a former Utah lawmaker sought to reduce the size of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument for personal gain, an investigation revealed.
Mike Noel, the recently retired legislator from Kanab, owns a ranch in Johnson Canyon, where 0.06 square miles (0.16 square kilometers) had been inside the original monument boundaries, the Salt Lake Tribune reported .
That parcel was removed from the monument under the redraw recommended by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, prompting allegations that new boundaries were drawn to benefit Noel.
But a probe by Interior’s Office of the Inspector General uncovered no evidence that Noel had any pull or that Interior officials knew of his financial interest in the matter, according to a report released Thursday.
“The employees also stated that they had been under no pressure to remove Noel’s property from the (monument),” the report said, “and had no knowledge of any financial benefit that Noel may have derived from its removal.”
Noel has maintained he engaged in no wrongdoing and denied he would benefit from having his property drawn out of the monument.
The groups that requested the Noel probe found its findings lacking.
“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It’s hard to find fault when there is no legal rationale to explain how the president chose to shrink and modify national monument boundaries,” Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project, said in a news release.
“This report is incomplete and raises more questions than it provides answers,” he added. “It really highlights the haphazard process this administration used to slash protections for some of our most treasured public lands, a process that failed to adequately listen to all public and stakeholder voices.”
Investigators concluded that Interior had no existing process in place for modifying monument boundaries but that officials developed and consistently followed a new process to review the 26 monuments.
Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com