One Year In, Ryan Zinke’s Conservation Legacy Would Make His Hero Scowl

The interior secretary's critics say he's no Teddy Roosevelt — not by a long shot.
HuffPost Illustration/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ― the pro-gun, cowboy hat-wearing, can’t-rig-a-fly-rod Montanan who outfitted his office with a slew of dead creatures he didn’t shoot and insists a special flag be raised above the agency’s headquarters each time he walks through the door ― speaks often of his love for America’s conservationist president, Theodore Roosevelt.

The former congressman and Navy SEAL rarely makes it more than a couple of minutes into a speech without saying something like “I’m a huge admirer of Roosevelt,” or “I get my inspiration from Teddy.” Late last year, the agency published a “comprehensive list of accomplishments” it achieved under Zinke’s leadership, including actions it felt demonstrated “a conservation stewardship legacy, second only to Teddy Roosevelt.”

Theodore Roosevelt IV, the president’s great-grandson, said he’s “reluctant to put words in a dead man’s mouth,” but has no doubt his ancestor would condemn what Zinke is doing. Many in the Roosevelt family, he said, are angry that Zinke keeps invoking their ancestor to misrepresent his own actions.

“His concept of how you protect public lands and the values that they represent are certainly very different than the old lion’s,” said Roosevelt IV, an investment banker. “And when he says he’s going to live up to the legacy of [Teddy], he’s not doing it.”

Zinke’s turbulent tenure as chief steward of America’s natural resources, which hit the one year mark on Thursday, has reminded some of a far more controversial figure: James Watt, President Ronald Reagan’s interior chief and a man widely considered among the most anti-environment Cabinet appointees in American history.

They share Western roots; Watt is from Wyoming. Both frequently appeared in public with a firearm or 10-gallon hat. Watt gave the agency’s bison seal a makeover, while Zinke sought to redesign the agency flag. But beyond that, Zinke is pushing a deregulatory, energy- and infrastructure-focused agenda that rivals that of Watt, who worked furiously to boost mining and fossil fuel production on federal lands.

In a 1982 question-and-answer session, Watt argued that offshore drilling poses far less of a threat to the environment than importing crude oil on ships ― “If those ships spill, we’ll have disaster!” he declared. And he said restoring formerly mined land brings “better vegetation, better habitat for wildlife,” and that “there’s more wildlife on the reclaimed mined lands in Wyoming than there are on the original lands.”

Similarly, Zinke often says it is “better for the environment” for the United States to produce energy “under reasonable regulations” than to have it be produced overseas with little or no safeguards. And in a May op-ed he argued that natural areas can benefit from resource extraction, writing we can “return the land to equal or better quality than it was before extraction.”

The interior secretary has been an industry ally and loyal adherent to President Donald Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda, putting wildlife and habitat conservation in the backseat.

“What is being done, I think, is the antithesis of what Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy has been,” said Sally Jewell, who led the federal agency for more than three years during President Barack Obama’s second term.

Roosevelt is likely “rolling over in his grave,” she said.

President Theodore Roosevelt arriving at Yellowstone National Park in 1903.
President Theodore Roosevelt arriving at Yellowstone National Park in 1903.
Library of Congress

A day after arriving at the agency on horseback last year, Zinke addressed his new colleagues. He spoke about the importance of teamwork and plans for a bold reorganization to ready the agency for the challenges of the future. And he allayed fears that the administration would sell or transfer public land, as the Republican Party’s platform calls for.

Zinke also promised to “fight” Trump on the budget proposal, which at the time called for a 10 percent cut in agency funding. “I think I’m going to win at the end of the day,” he said, drawing applause from his staff.

Whether Zinke stood up to Trump and made a case for why the department should receive “the whole enchilada,” as he put it, remains unclear. But in the end, Trump sought less money for the department, not more. His “America First” budget blueprint released in March 2017 called for a 12 percent cut. And the 2019 budget request released last month proposes 15 percent. Nevertheless, Zinke continues to applaud his commander in chief.

Just as Zinke’s personal schedule and social media presence suggest a clear affinity for the fossil fuel industry, the budget proposals paint a clear picture of the administration’s priorities. The 2019 request promotes increased drilling and extraction, and proposes using energy revenues to address the more than $11 billion maintenance backlog at national parks. It also calls for gutting funds for land acquisition and conservation programs. The popular Land and Water Conservation Fund, established in 1964 to protect natural areas and water resources, would be slashed by roughly 95 percent, to a budget of less than $9 million, and a program that divvies out money to states and territories for voluntary species and habitat conservation projects would be zeroed out.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rides a horse to his first day of work at the Interior Department on March 2, 2017.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rides a horse to his first day of work at the Interior Department on March 2, 2017.
Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement/Twitter

To be fair, Zinke’s task is daunting. Interior employs more than 70,000 people and manages 500 million acres of land — roughly one-fifth of the U.S. — including the 59 national parks. The department is responsible for safeguarding endangered species, upholding the nation’s trust responsibilities to native tribes, and protecting public lands for future generations. But it’s also the agency that sets the policies that govern exploitation: The Washington Post once appropriately described the department as “schizophrenic.”

Zinke says he has succeeded in “striking the right balance to protect our greatest treasures and also generate the revenue and energy our country needs.”

But most of the activity so far has been on the side of increasing energy production and undoing the regulatory work of the last administration. Zinke overturned an Obama-era moratorium on new coal leases on federal land and proposed opening nearly all U.S. waters to offshore drilling. He scrapped a hydraulic fracturing rule meant to better protect public health and unsuccessfully attempted to roll back an Obama-era rule limiting the amount of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, that can be released from oil and gas operations on federal and Native American lands.

“Our nation can’t run on pixie dust and hope,” Zinke said in March at a signing ceremony for Trump’s executive order to roll back Obama-era policies aimed at curbing emissions and combating climate change.

David Hayes, the agency’s deputy secretary under Obama, said Zinke joins Watt and Gale Norton, President George W. Bush’s first interior chief, as the few leaders in the agency’s history who have prioritized extraction over all other functions for public lands. “Most of the secretaries recognize that while there is a role for public lands and energy development, it’s very much circumscribed by the conservation mandate the department has,” he said.

Early in Zinke’s tenure, environmentalists, outdoor sporting groups and many Democratic lawmakers saw him as less problematic than other Trump appointees; someone they could work with, even if they didn’t see eye-to-eye on certain issues. That was before Zinke led the largest reduction of protected national monuments in history, voiced support for drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, took aim at a collaborative conservation plan for the greater sage grouse and proposed to drastically hike entrance fees at 17 of America’s most popular national parks as the administration looks to slash the National Park Service’s budget.

New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall was one of 15 Democratic senators who voted to confirm Zinke to the position — a decision he now seems to regret.

“He promised me he intended to run the Interior Department in the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt,” Udall said in an email. “But one year later, Teddy Roosevelt would be horrified by the actions Secretary Zinke has taken to undermine conservation, sideline scientists, ignore public advisory boards, and weaken protections for public lands.”

The Center for Western Priorities, a Colorado-based conservation advocacy group, maintains a website of Zinke’s “dirty deeds,” which includes his use of private planes and accusing 30 percent of interior employees of being “not loyal to the flag.” And this week the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity announced Zinke as the winner of its Rubber Dodo award, given out annually to “the person or group who has most aggressively sought to destroy America’s natural heritage or drive endangered species extinct.”

(Left) Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in Utah on May 10, 2017 following visits to Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. (Right) James Watt, who led the Interior Department under President Ronald Reagan, during a visit to Bisti Badlands in New Mexico.
(Left) Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in Utah on May 10, 2017 following visits to Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. (Right) James Watt, who led the Interior Department under President Ronald Reagan, during a visit to Bisti Badlands in New Mexico.
George Frey/Getty Images/Steve Northup, The LIFE Images Collection, Getty Images

But topping any critic’s list of Zinke’s failures is his effort to shrink or otherwise weaken protections for 10 national monuments, which many see as an illegal attack on the powers granted to U.S. presidents. In December, on Zinke’s recommendation, Trump signed two proclamations to strip a collective 2 million acres from a pair of Utah national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, the largest reduction in history. The downsizing opens the door for oil, mining and other types of development on that land, although the administration says that didn’t factor into its decision.

Sixteen presidents have used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate 157 monuments. The law, which Trump and Zinke have accused previous presidents of abusing to lock up federal land, was signed by none other than Roosevelt. The late president used it to designate 18 national monuments, including 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon.

Jewell said interior’s decisions must be made cautiously. But she argues that many of Zinke’s actions, including those on monuments and the sage grouse, have been political and ill-advised.

“Things that can be done and are being done right now [by Zinke] may take decades to undo,” Jewell said.

Katie Schoettler, a spokeswoman for the House Natural Resources Committee, said that while the Obama administration “stopped at nothing to restrict public land access, Secretary Zinke continues to promote responsible recreation and economic uses of our public lands.” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), a vocal opponent of the Obama-era monuments, chairs the committee. The Interior Department did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for an interview.

While Zinke is leading the effort to rescind the conservation legacies of past presidents, he has been looking to create his own back home in Montana. In a report released in December, Zinke asked Trump to consider designating the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area on the southern edge of Glacier National Park as a new national monument, noting the site is sacred to the Blackfeet Nation.

Zinke’s effort to protect Badger-Two Medicine may seem particularly ironic considering Bears Ears, one of the monuments he recommended for the chopping block, is sacred to several other tribes that came together to petition for the Utah site to be given monument status in the first place.

Zinke didn’t list the monuments rollback on his year-end list of conservation victories, but rather among that ways his department is restoring trust and being a good neighbor. Instead, in a bizarre move, he took credit for the government’s victory in a years-long lawsuit to prevent mining near Grand Canyon National Park, a legal fight that had already been argued in federal court a month before the Trump administration took office. Zinke also took a victory lap for opening public access to the 16,000-acre Sabinoso Wilderness in New Mexico, even though that agreement was first announced in 2016 and made possible thanks to a sizable private donation.

Zinke scored rare points with the conservation and sporting communities last month when he signed a secretarial order to study and improve important habitat and migration corridors in Western states for big-game species like elk, antelope and mule deer. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, an early Zinke supporter that grew frustrated with him as he cozied up to fossil fuel interests, was among the organizations that applauded the announcement.

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a Montana-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting public lands, also had positive things to say about Zinke early on, but quickly changed its tone. Land Tawney, the group’s president, says he welcomes announcements like those on Sabinoso and migration corridors, and is happy to give Zinke credit where due. But Zinke’s positive moves have been dwarfed by the negatives, he said, and outdoor enthusiasts have taken notice.

Tawney said this administration is a wake-up call for hunters and anglers, many of whom have become somewhat apathetic after years of healthy game populations.

“They’re awakening a force that’s been around in conservation in this country for over 100 years,” he said. “Unless people use their voice, we are going to lose it. We are going to lose this legacy that we have.”

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