WASHINGTON — Late last month, the Interior Department published a “comprehensive list of accomplishments” in its first year under Secretary Ryan Zinke’s leadership, including several actions it felt demonstrated “a conservation stewardship legacy, second only to Teddy Roosevelt.”
In a summary of those accomplishments, Interior noted that it opened 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. The agency also noted that it expanded hunting and fishing opportunities on 10 national wildlife refuges — an announcement that closely mirrored ones from the Obama administration in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
But the most perplexing accomplishment listed on the summary was that DOI had “successfully defended a mineral withdrawal near the Grand Canyon.”
Zinke’s first year was largely marked by efforts to boost mining and fossil fuel production, prioritizing energy development over conservation. There is also no evidence to support the claim that his agency did anything to protect the Grand Canyon area specifically, and a more detailed list linked to in the agency’s Dec. 28 press release curiously makes no mention of this issue.
Instead, Zinke is taking credit for the government’s victory in a yearslong lawsuit over mining near the Grand Canyon, a legal fight that had already been argued in federal court a month before the Trump administration took office.
In 2012, the Obama administration instituted a 20-year ban on new uranium and other hardrock mining on more than a million acres around Grand Canyon National Park. At the time, Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that “a withdrawal is the right approach for this priceless American landscape.”
The National Mining Association and several other groups promptly sued, kicking off four years of litigation.
The proceedings were completed in December 2016, and last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld the Obama-era ban, concluding that temporarily freezing mining leases “will permit more careful, longer-term study of the uncertain effects of uranium mining in the area and better-informed decision making in the future.”
That same three-judge panel separately ruled that uranium mining company Energy Fuels Resources Inc. could open its mine in Kaibab National Forest, roughly six miles from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Energy Fuels is the same company that lobbied Trump to carve up Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument so that it could access the area’s uranium deposits, as The Washington Post first reported. Downey Magallanes, a top Zinke aide and the daughter of a coal executive, met with Energy Fuels’ vice president of operations in July.
Zinke was still a member of Congress back when the government finished the legal work on the mining ban case. The government filed no additional arguments or motions during Trump’s tenure, the docket shows.
The only action Zinke’s Interior appears to have taken was not walking away from the lawsuit.
Roger Clark, a program director at Grand Canyon Trust, an Arizona-based advocacy group and one of several defendants in the case, called Zinke’s claim that it had defended the mineral withdrawal baffling. It’s the latest from an administration that, he said, “continues to put out ludicrous assertions as facts.”
“It’s kind of like Trump taking credit for the economy or what the interest rates are doing,” Clark said, adding that the current administration inherited success from its predecessor.
Further muddying where the administration stands on the issue is an October report in which the U.S. Forest Service recommends that the White House consider lifting the mining ban on the million acres of federal land near Grand Canyon. Doing so, it said, “could re-open lands to mineral entry pursuant to the United States mining laws facilitating exploration for, and possibly development of, uranium resources.”
The Interior Department did not respond to HuffPost’s inquiries seeking clarification on its position.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, sees the two agencies’ contradictory positions as par for the course.
“Arizona has a painful history of irresponsible and dangerous uranium mining, and maintaining the current withdrawal around the Grand Canyon is clearly the right policy,” he wrote in an email to HuffPost. “If the Trump administration agrees with Arizonans on that I’ll applaud them for it, but we don’t have a solid idea of where the White House stands from minute to minute. Reauthorizing FISA is bad, and then it’s good. A clean DACA bill is workable, and then it’s impossible. We’re drilling off the Florida coast, and then we aren’t.”
“I hope this administration protects the Grand Canyon and the health and safety of our communities, but I’m not sure I know where they stand or how long that will last,” Grijalva added.
Ted Zukoski, an attorney with Earthjustice who represented Grand Canyon Trust and other groups in the case, told HuffPost that regardless of whether the Trump administration deserves credit for the court ruling, “It’s good to see Secretary Zinke support the mineral withdrawal, which protects not only the wildlife and scenery of the Grand Canyon region but the communities and people who have lived there for millennia, including the Havasupai Tribe.”
Taking credit for the withdrawal contradicts much of Zinke’s first 10 months on the job. While environmentalists initially saw him as less of a threat than other Trump Cabinet picks, he has emerged as yet another industry ally, working to pave a better future for coal, oil and gas. “Our nation can’t run on pixie dust and hope,” he said at a March signing ceremony for Trump’s executive order rolling back Obama-era policies aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
Zinke has also overturned an Obama-era moratorium on new coal leases on federal land, moved to expand domestic mineral production and, last week, proposed opening nearly all U.S. waters to offshore drilling. He’s met privately with a slew of oil and gas executives, as well as spoken at industry conferences and a trade group’s board meeting. In defending the Trump administration’s push for an increase fossil fuel production, Zinke has compared oil drilling to hunting and fishing. He has also said natural areas can actually benefit from the extraction of oil, gas and minerals.
Zinke talks often about his fondness for former President Theodore Roosevelt, describing himself as an “unapologetic admirer and disciple.” But his actions — in particular his recommendation that Trump shrink or otherwise weaken several national monuments designated under the Antiquities Act, which Roosevelt signed into law in 1906 and used to establish and protect 18 national monuments — have left many in the conservation and outdoor sporting communities fuming.
Kate Kelly, public lands director at Center for American Progress and a former Interior official during the Obama administration, said Zinke is “scraping the bottom of the barrel” to come up with conservation wins.
“Yes, the administration deserves a pat on the back for not reversing protections for the Grand Canyon — so far — but if Zinke really wants to leave a legacy that deserves to be mentioned even on the same page as Teddy Roosevelt’s, he’s got to do a lot more than take credit for not walking away from old lawsuits,” she told HuffPost in an email. “If you discount the conservation accomplishments that are either annual announcements or were well underway under the previous administration, there’s simply nothing left on Zinke’s ledger.”