Dec. 27, 2017 – On his first day as Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke famously arrived at work on horseback. He had good reason to show a little Western swagger: Unlike many of his colleagues in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, Zinke could boast of the broad, bipartisan support he received as he took the reins of a powerful government agency.
In late 2016, public lands stakeholders from across the spectrum expressed their support of then-Rep. Zinke’s (R-MT) nomination. National hunting and fishing groups—including Trout Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership—applauded Zinke’s appointment. Outdoor recreation organizations followed suit: Outside magazine endorsed him as “the last hope for our public lands.” The Outdoor Industry Association—a trade association representing major outdoor gear companies—congratulated Zinke on his nomination, noting his “shared values specific to the importance of access to and funding for America’s public lands and waters.” The National Congress of American Indians wrote letters to President Trump and Congress in support of Zinke’s nomination. Fellow Montana politicians—including Sen. Jon Tester (D), Sen. Steve Daines (R) and Gov. Steve Bullock (D)—also gave him a thumbs-up. Additionally, several conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy and The Wilderness Society offered modest praise of the nominee and expressed their hope that he would prove to be the pragmatic “Teddy Roosevelt conservationist” he promised he would be.
What a difference a year makes. At the end of his first calendar year in office, Zinke’s public image is in such tatters and his political support is so eroded that only a handful of right-wing loyalists still stand with him. After his most high-profile announcement of the year—the December 5 release of his national monuments report to President Trump—Zinke was left grasping for the endorsements of science-denier Myron Ebell; the National Rifle Association; right-wing policy groups such as the Sutherland Institute and Americans For Prosperity; and anti-parks politicians such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Reps. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and Raul Labrador (R-ID).
Secretary Zinke has only himself to blame for clumsily falling off his high horse. His anti-science and anti-conservation policies, coupled with growing revelations about his questionable travel practices, showy behavior, and poor treatment of career employees have eroded the support of his early champions. Members of the mainstream sportsmen and women community have largely broken ties with the secretary. The CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, for example, stated that the Zinke has “stopped listening to Montanans, and he’s really stopped listening to hunters and anglers.” Five Native American tribes and the outdoor clothing company Patagonia have sued the federal government over Zinke and President Trump’s decision to eliminate protections for Bears Ears National Monument. Polls of Montanans show Zinke’s popularity falling, and Zinke’s hometown paper, the Missoulian, ran a critical editorial that concluded, “He is fast heading for a failing grade if he does not improve his performance immediately.” Even Theodore Roosevelt IV felt the need to clarify that Secretary Zinke’s actions look nothing like those taken by his great-grandfather and former president.
Here are six actions Secretary Zinke took that precipitated his fall:
1. The Teddy Roosevelt ruse
Secretary Zinke has referred to himself multiple times as a “Teddy Roosevelt conservationist,” and with a Twitter bio that reads “#TeddyRoosevelt & #PublicLands fan,” many understandably felt hopeful that he would try to emulate the conservation-minded approach of the former president. The watershed moment for many of Zinke’s early supporters, however, came with his review of national monuments, which culminated in the largest elimination of protected areas in U.S. history. The legally dubious executive action removed protections from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah and put more than two million acres at risk for drilling, mining, and looting. For comparison, President Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law and protected 230 million acres of public lands, including 18 national monuments.
2. Alienating Interior Department staff
During a speech to an oil industry group in September, Zinke complained that approximately 30 percent of Interior Department employees were not “loyal to the flag,” implying that career civil servants were not showing allegiance to President Trump. Groups representing current and former Interior employees called his statement “ludicrous, and deeply insulting.”
Zinke’s comments build on a series of actions he has taken to intimidate and undercut career employees, including by reassigning dozens of senior officials to new roles. This action spurred an investigation by the inspector general with particular focus on employees such as Joel Clement, who was moved from a position working on climate change to one collecting royalties from oil and gas companies.
Significantly, Zinke has signaled support for a budget proposal that would slash the budgets for key agencies and programs at the Interior by 12 percent, resulting in a cut of roughly 4,000 employees.
3. Cutting the public out of public lands
Zinke’s National Park Service is proposing to more than double the entrance fees to some of the country’s most popular national parks—including the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone national parks—putting access out of financial reach for many families. In the same vein, Zinke has decided to cut the number of free admission days to parks by 60 percent in 2018—from 10 days to just four—further pushing out the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts and families who may not otherwise be able to afford the price of admission. Zinke’s moves stray from President Roosevelt’s vision that public lands should be “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
4. Holding a fire sale of public lands for the oil and gas industry
Zinke has been the flag bearer for President Trump’s energy-dominance mantra and was recently called a “shameless tool of oil and gas industries.” In addition to working overtime to remove energy standards designed to protect the environment, taxpayers, and worker safety, Zinke is holding a veritable fire sale of public lands for the oil and gas industry.
In early December, for example, the Interior Department held what was touted by Zinke as the largest ever lease sale in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve. The secretary’s self-assured pride in this sale was premature. With industry bids on just 7 of the 900 tracts offered, the sale was a total flop. Regardless of how many acres the Trump administration insists on giving away to industry, it cannot force drilling where the demand doesn’t exist. Not only are the leases not selling, but the ones that have are going for bargain basement prices, meaning taxpayers are forced to sell out their public lands without receiving a fair share of revenue. With more than 14 million acres of unused leases on federal lands, Zinke is simply adding to the industry’s glut of oil and gas leases and permits.
5. Wasting taxpayer dollars
The Interior Department’s inspector general is investigating Zinke’s travel habits, including his questionable mix of official and political travel on the taxpayers’ dime. Just days after former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price was fired for taxpayer-funded private jet travel, documents obtained by Politico and The Washington Post found that Zinke had spent $12,375 chartering a private flight from Las Vegas, where he spoke to a hockey team owned by a former political donor, to his nearby home in Montana.
Other reports unearthed that Zinke has spent upwards of $14,000 on helicopter trips for events that included horseback riding with the vice president and the swearing-in ceremony of Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT), who replaced Zinke’s seat in Congress. Questions have also been raised about whether taxpayer dollars and staff time have been used to accommodate numerous official trips in which the secretary’s wife, Lolita Zinke, has participated.
6. Displays of self-importance
In perhaps one of the most bizarre stories of 2017, The Washington Post reported that Zinke insisted that a special secretarial flag be raised or lowered over the Interior Department to reflect his presence in or absence from Washington. Zinke also had special commemorative coins minted with his name on them to distribute to staff and visitors, among others.
His unprecedented antics earned a reaction from Montana’s Billings Gazette editorial board, which wrote, “These actions are pompous and a betrayal of his Montana roots… Secretary Zinke, running a flag up a flagpole may earn you a salute from your staff, but it won’t earn you respect.”
Zinke’s fall from grace has been swift, public, and damaging to America’s public lands. Without political clout or public support, an interior secretary’s ability to advance a substantive agenda or build consensus on complex problems is vastly diminished. Though Zinke’s remaining friends in the extractive industries may be well-funded, the policies advanced on their behalf are already being widely contested. Western governors—both Republicans and Democrats—are fighting against Zinke’s effort to undo collaborative conservation plans for wildlife habitat and the greater sage grouse. Western attorneys general are successfully stopping Zinke’s regulatory efforts in the courts. Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are panning Zinke’s proposed budget cuts for the agencies he oversees. Most importantly, citizens—including those from Zinke’s home state of Montana—are speaking out in record numbers against his unprecedented attack on America’s conservation traditions.
Unless Zinke takes decisive action to embrace President Roosevelt’s conservation ethic and his commitment to ethical government practices in 2018, he will at best be remembered as a Cabinet member who was all hat and no cattle. At worst, he will be recognized as the most anti-conservation interior secretary in American history—a distinction that even President Trump may not be willing to tolerate much longer.
Jenny Rowland is the research and advocacy manager for Public Lands at the Center for American Progress. Kate Kelly is the director of Public Lands at the Center.
The authors would like to thank Matt Lee-Ashley, Katherine Downs, and Tricia Woodcome for their contributions to this column.
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