SALT LAKE CITY — Mike Noel was a 22-year career employee of the Bureau of Land Management, working in 1996 as the project lead on the proposed Smoky Hollow coal mine when it was swept up in a monument designation.
About eight months after former President Bill Clinton's surprise creation of the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Noel quit the agency.
Now, one of its harshest, most blistering critics, Noel wants to take charge. Why?
"I could do a better job of managing it than the people who are managing it now," he said simply.
Noel, backed by more than 30 powerful endorsements, wants to lead the federal agency that controls more than 245 million acres — the most of any agency in the United States, the one that controls two-thirds of Utah — and shake things up.
"What I beat up on is the fact that the agency doesn't follow its organic act," he said. "Their mission was to retain lands in public ownership, still allowing for sales and exchanges of lands that are uneconomic to manage, but they got away from that."
Speculation has been swirling for weeks that Noel, a Kane County cattle rancher, head of a water conservancy district and 15-year member of the Utah Legislature, had thrown his proverbial hat in the ring for the BLM's top job.
The critics have already come out against Noel in a pre-emptive strike, even though the man to potentially pick Noel — ex-Navy Seal and Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke — has yet to be confirmed as President Donald Trump's Interior Secretary.
On Thursday, Alliance for a Better Utah issued a news release about Noel's possible appointment, announced a petition drive against it and said Noel's policies and "temperament" are not congruent with the position of BLM national director.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, Attorney General Sean Reyes, both state senators, members of Utah's congressional delegation and a string of other organizations — including the Western States Sheriffs Association, Utah Association of Counties and rural electric associations and co-ops in Nevada and Utah — think otherwise.
"Upon graduating from the University of Berkeley, California, Mr. Noel began working for the agency he now ought to run, the BLM," wrote Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, in his letter of endorsement.
Lee's letter goes on to say, "Mr. Noel has the experience to identify the BLM's warts, the vision to chart a new path for the bureau, and the resolve to see these changes through. I can think of no other better person to run the BLM."
On Thursday, Noel spoke in detail to the Deseret News about what he views as the agency's flaws. He also pointed out that he didn't lobby for the job initially but was recruited by several people, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to apply.
"They're not managing it properly, the way they are supposed to" Noel said. "It's been turned over to a bunch of people who don't understand."
Noel said he was introduced to Donald Trump Jr. five months ago by Don Peay, founder of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, and a controversial Utah lobbyist who garnered contracts to fight the reintroduction of wolves into the state and keep the greater sage grouse off the federal endangered species list.
In the introduction, Noel said Peay told the future president's son, "This is Mike Noel. He needs to be the next national director of the BLM."
It's gone on from there.
Noel said he doesn't find it strange to want to right what he sees are the wrongs of an agency that has strayed from its multiple-use mission and instead devolved into a government machine steeped in bureaucratic morass and paralyzed by environmental lawsuits.
"There is no question there are laws and regulations that I would follow, just like I followed the Federal Land Policy Management Act for years when I worked there," he said.
"They don't manage it for multiple use. The roads that were supposed to be grandfathered in, thousands of miles of roads, are not. … It takes forever to get a right of way. They've cut hundreds of thousands of grazing permits."
Alliance for a Better Utah wrote that Noel at the helm of the public lands agency would be a "catastrophe" to Utah's outdoor recreation economy.
But Noel, like Herbert, Hatch and so many conservative GOP leaders, argue that having one use of the land, such as hiking or backpacking, doesn't mean it has to come at the expense of traditional Western uses like ranching.
The scale that has tipped too far, according to Hatch, creates its own sort of catastrophe, with a Washington-minded BLM that has cut off access and has "established a growing climate of mistrust" among Westerners and the agency over the last eight years.
"Moving forward, this divide must be healed," Hatch wrote in his endorsement to Trump's transition team for the Interior Department.
"Now more than ever we need a national director who understands that we must restore a more balanced use of our nation's public lands, embodied by the BLM's multiple-use mandate, and I believe my friend, Mike Noel, will strike that balance," Hatch wrote.
Noel has a bachelor's degree in zoology and a master's degree in plant ecology. Often blustery and steeped in his rural roots — he runs 200 head of cattle in Kane County — Noel received an award for his conservation ethic as a rancher in the mid-1990s and said he wouldn't disembowel the agency like so many say.
He's derided, criticized and lampooned by his critics, which include the most influential and litigious environmental groups in the state. He remains unabashed in his convictions, however, and fires back — saying he represents the voice of rural Utah, a voice not heard today by the BLM.
"When it takes seven years to get a power line, when a full community on Cedar Mountain is out of power and having to use generators … that is crazy. That is insane," he said.
On Thursday, Noel unveiled a resolution calling on Congress to shrink the boundaries of the national monument where he once worked on a preliminary analysis of a plan to mine 72 million tons of recoverable coal.
There is no reason, he said, for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to be bigger than 781 square miles.
"781 square miles? That's a pretty big monument."
And that type of thinking is what scares his foes, and endears his supporters.