WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump tapped Ryan Zinke — an avid hunter, Republican Montana congressman, “unapologetic admirer and disciple” of President Theodore Roosevelt and former Navy SEAL — to lead the Interior Department, hunting and fishing groups around the country rejoiced.
Ducks Unlimited applauded Zinke as “a smart choice” to lead an agency that manages some 500 million acres of federal land ― roughly one-fifth of the United States — including 59 national parks. Zinke “understands the importance of public lands” and has shown himself to be “a potential ally of sportsmen and other outdoor recreationists,” noted Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocating for public land access, called him “the best Cabinet nominee for sportsmen, so far” — someone the group “can work with” and who has “shown the courage to buck his own party on the issue of selling or transferring public lands.”
And the National Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit that advocates for protecting wildlife populations and public access, said the nomination signaled that Trump “intends to keep his promises to America’s hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts.”
The morning after being confirmed by the Senate and sworn in on March 1, Zinke showed up to his new post in Washington sporting a cowboy hat and riding a horse. Hours later, flanked by representatives of hunting, conservation and gun rights groups, he signed a pair of orders to “expand access to public lands and increase hunting, fishing, and recreation opportunities nationwide,” according to the Interior Department.
For many in the outdoor sporting community, it was a sign Zinke would have their back.
Over the last four and a half months, however, some of those same organizations have changed their tune as Zinke has cozied up to fossil fuel interests and come to support a budget proposal — one he initially vowed to fight — that would slash funding for land acquisition and conservation programs while promoting increased drilling and extraction on public lands.
“The level of frustration is growing daily” among outdoor groups, Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, told HuffPost.
“To date, it’s been overwhelmingly development, development, development — without even lip service to conservation,” Fosburgh said of Zinke. “That is troubling.”
Since taking over the Interior Department, Zinke has repeatedly called himself “a Teddy Roosevelt guy” and stressed the need for his agency to get the economic wheels of America’s public lands turning while continuing to be a steward of the environment.
To that end, he has spent a large portion of his time meeting with a slew of fossil fuel executives, visiting national monuments as part of the Trump administration’s controversial review of 27 protected areas, and advancing Trump’s push for “energy dominance.”
Zinke overturned an Obama-era moratorium on new coal leases on federal land and moved to scrap a hydraulic fracturing rule meant to better protect public health. He is also working to rewrite a rule limiting the amount of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, that can be released from oil and gas operations on federal land. He signed an order earlier this month to expand onshore fossil fuel production by holding quarterly lease sales and by reducing the time the Bureau of Land Management takes to issue permits.
Habitat restoration and endangered species listings have taken a back seat as Zinke pushes for energy and infrastructure projects — not a huge surprise, considering his track record on threatened species, his paltry 4 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters and his listing on the Center for American Progress’ “anti-parks caucus,” a collection of lawmakers who, according to the group, jeopardize the future of the country’s flagship protected lands.
In June, Zinke took aim at protections for the greater sage grouse, launching a review of an Obama-era conservation plan for the ground-dwelling game bird — a move he said would provide states with “greater flexibility” to pursue opportunities for energy development and job growth.
“To date, it’s been overwhelmingly development, development, development — without even lip service to conservation. That is troubling.”
HuffPost contacted representatives of four groups that came out as early supporters of Zinke. Three expressed disappointment with what they’ve seen from him thus far, but they also said it’s still early and that they remain hopeful.
“We keep on waiting for the Theodore Roosevelt Zinke to show up,” said Land Tawney, president and chief executive of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a Montana-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting public lands and preserving opportunities for hunting and fishing.
Tawney said that while Zinke has said he plans to emulate Roosevelt, “actions speak louder than words.”
“There hasn’t been concrete action yet, but there’s been a lot of rhetoric that doesn’t fit, I think, that conservation ethic that Roosevelt set into motion,” he said.
Trump’s 2018 budget request would slash the Interior Department’s funding by $1.6 billion — to $11.7 billion — and support fewer than 60,000 full-time staff members, a reduction of roughly 4,000 people. Among the programs that would be gutted is the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports protecting federal public lands and waters.
Tawney called the Land and Water Conservation Fund “the No. 1 access tool that we have in this country,” and said cutting its funding simply doesn’t jibe with what Zinke has said about improving access.
He also has serious concerns about what he sees as a push to not only balance a budget, but turn a profit, off America’s public lands.
“That is not the vision of our public lands,” Tawney said. “You’re not going to drill your way into a net positive unless you totally cut the operating resources for the agency and really exploit these lands really at an all-time high. That’s something that is potentially the most damaging to our resources out on the ground — that idea that the Interior lands are for making money and that’s about it.”
Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, also wants to see more focus on conservation and fulfilling the promises Zinke made to outdoor groups during his confirmation process.
“The biggest concern is that we’re re-litigating the past instead of talking about the future — on everything,” he said. “Every minute that we’re squabbling over the sage grouse plans, which have broad support from the governors, or monument designations that have been settled, in some cases, for 25 years, is a minute that we’re not restoring habitat, we’re not increasing access.”
“We don’t think we can afford to tread water or lose ground in the next four years, given the kind of the state of America’s wildlife populations and the tens of millions of kids that have no meaningful experience in the outdoors,” O’Mara said.
Zinke has also taken heat from outdoor publications. In an open letter, Andrew McKean, the editor-in-chief of Outdoor Life magazine, took the Trump administration and Zinke to task over their review of monument designations and expansions made under the Antiquities Act, a law Roosevelt signed in 1906.
“If you continue to borrow from Roosevelt’s legacy, as I hope you do, it’s fair to ask you: What would TR do with this opportunity to question the integrity of national monuments?” McKean wrote. “I think he would say it’s time to stop demonizing monuments and the process that created them, and instead to celebrate them as a collection of the best of our landscapes, and places to exercise true multiple use on our most remarkable public lands.”
This week, online fly fishing magazine Hatch published a piece in which veteran conservation writer Ted Williams skewers Zinke — whom he describes as “an oil-and-gas promoter in green drag” — and the people who “gush about anti-environmental bureaucrats and politicians” who hunt and fish, or just pretend to.
“Hunters and anglers are too easily seduced by candidates who bloviate about the Second Amendment or flounce around at photo ops with borrowed fly rods and shotguns,” Williams writes. “Sportsmen need to pay more attention to what those candidates do and less attention to what they say.”
“We keep on waiting for the Theodore Roosevelt Zinke to show up.”
To be fair, Zinke still has supporters in the hunting and outdoor community. Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting wetlands for waterfowl and recreation, was unable to schedule time for a call with HuffPost, but emailed a statement from its chief policy officer, Margaret Everson.
“Thanks to Sec. Zinke’s leadership, Ducks Unlimited and sportsmen and women from around the country are being welcomed as partners at the Department of Interior,” she said.
However, Everson also made a reference to the number of unfilled positions at the Interior Department, which Zinke alluded to during a budget hearing on June 22. “I don’t have a deputy,” he said. “I have about 70 appointments, to date there is not one that has gone through Senate confirmation yet.”
“We agree with Sec. Zinke’s frustration with the process and are disappointed at the pace that important nominations and confirmations have moved so far,” Everson said. “Until political nominees have been appointed and confirmed, positive policy changes that the Secretary has committed to cannot be accomplished at the Department of Interior.”
The unfilled positions mean there are few experts Zinke trusts to guide him on key issues, Fosburgh likewise noted.
The Interior Department did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Fosburgh, Tawney and O’Mara said a lot hinges on what happens in the next couple of months, as Zinke is set to complete his reviews of both monument designations and sage grouse conservation plans. And they plan to keep a watchful eye on him.
“I think the jury is still out,” O’Mara said. “I think that we have someone that shares values with sportsmen and is a sportsman himself, but now we need action. Talk’s not enough.”
At some point, if Zinke doesn’t deliver, the hunters, fishermen and outdoor enthusiasts who endorsed him are going to “get really frustrated that they got snookered,” Fosburgh said.
“I think you’re going to see more stuff coming from the sportsmen’s side basically saying, ‘We spoke up for you. We supported your nomination. We have embraced you coming in, given you every benefit of the doubt. And we’re not even getting the time of day.’”