WASHINGTON, DC, Oct. 4, 2017 – Exorbitant travel by the Interior Secretary is not limited to charter planes but includes seagoing vessels, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In mid-April, Ryan Zinke diverted a National Park Service (NPS) boat to pick him and family members up for a three-hour island tour featuring a Junior Ranger swearing-in ceremony.
On April 18th, the NPS boat Ocean Ranger left its Ventura, California port to travel to Santa Barbara Harbor to pick up Zinke, his wife, and aunt to take them and other members of his party to Santa Rosa Island, part of the Channel Islands National Park, and back that same day.
The party spent more time at sea than on the island, with a three-hour itinerary that consisted largely of photo ops, a tour, lunch, and Zinke swearing in middle school students as Junior Rangers. Notably –
- Use of the government ship cost taxpayers around $4,000 dollars, including fuel and crew overtime, an estimate that does not include significant time by several NPS staff people;
- Zinke also brought along two local fishermen whom he classified as “technical experts” though on what issue is unclear. As such, they traveled free; and
- To pay for his wife and aunt, NPS presented Zinke with a bill for $142, which by mid-June increased to $152 in late fees. The bill appears to have been paid by late June.
“This ‘grip-and-grin’ tour is galling when the Secretary is telling everyone else to tighten their belts,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch who obtained the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after employees complained of the time and expense lost for no discernible purpose. “Taxpayers should not foot the bill for public officials acting as tourists.”
The records also describe Zinke expressing a desire to open a “working demonstration ranch” on Santa Rosa Island to “highlight the island’s ranching heritage,” quoting a note from the park superintendent. The Zinke tour group also included members of the Vail family which ran a cattle ranch on the island until 1998 and a commercial hunting operation there until 2011.
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The Channel Islands are often called “the Galapagos Islands of North America” due to the unique and wide diversity of plants and animals found nowhere else on earth. In recent years, NPS has undertaken a major and costly effort to preserve and protect these native resources, including removal of nonnative plants and animals, recovery of island foxes, and reestablishment of bald eagles.
“Cattle and imported game animals are not the ‘heritage’ of Santa Rosa but an aberrant moment in its history,” added Ruch, noting a recent Zinke directive to maximize hunting opportunities even on national park lands. “Our major concern is that Ryan Zinke wants to turn this ecological jewel back into a game preserve.”