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Utah Senator Advocates For New National Lands Lawyer

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U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, wants the Senate to confirm Ryan Nelson to be Interior Solicitor. The nomination has been pending for more than 230 days.

The U.S. Interior Department still doesn’t have a top lawyer, even though Interior Secretary Zinke put forward Ryan Nelson’s name last summer.

U.S Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, says it’s time for the Senate to confirm Nelson for the post.

“The Interior Department needs to have a solicitor,” said Lee, who said in a Senate floor speech that he pulled all-nighters in law school with Nelson at Brigham Young University. “Ryan Nelson is an exceptionally qualified nominee for that position. Let’s confirm Ryan Nelson today.”

Lee described how Nelson had served in all three branches of government, including a stint handling environment and natural resource cases at the Justice Department. He’s been employed for eight years by Frank VanderSloot, a big GOP political donor and the man Forbes magazine calls Idaho’s richest resident.

Lee also linked Nelson to the Trump administration’s efforts to heal the distrust many Westerners have toward the federal government.

“We can help restore that trust by confirming impartial, well-qualified nominees,” he said, “and Ryan Nelson is such a nominee.”

At least one senator is blocking a vote on Nelson.

John Leshy, Interior’s top lawyer in the Clinton administration, says practically every decision at Interior – on energy, water, national parks — involves political questions as, well as legal ones.

“The solicitor has input on almost everything the department does. It’s a pretty powerful office,” said Leshy.

“Given [Nelson's] background from what I know about it, he’s going to reflect the positions of the President and the secretary of the interior, which are extremely conservative” when it comes to public lands.

The Department of Interior manages hundreds of millions of acres — most of it in the West. They include national monuments, national parks, wildlife refuges and mining sites.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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