In less than two years, the now-former Interior Secretary left a wake of corporate favoritism and ethical scandals
Less than two years after being confirmed as Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke has officially left the office, handing the reins to his second-in-command, former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt. During his confirmation hearings before the Senate, Zinke framed himself as an ardent conservationist in the mold of Theodore Roosevelt‚ who, as president, created the U.S. Forest Service, protected some of our nation’s first national parks, and signed a law allowing the designation of national monuments. However, as Interior Secretary, Zinke morphed into the antithesis of Roosevelt, dismantling national monuments, opening millions of acres to drilling and mining, and cozying up to corporate executives and political donors. Fittingly, one of Zinke’s final moves was to allow national parks to be trashed by leaving them open, but understaffed, during the government shutdown.
A brief look at winners and losers from his time in office shows why Ryan Zinke will be remembered as the most anti-conservation Interior Secretary of all time.
Corporations looking to drill and mine our public lands
Ryan Zinke summed up his approach as Interior Secretary by telling a conference of oil and gas CEOs, “our government should work for you, the oil and gas industry.” During his tenure, Zinke opened more than 13 million acres of public lands to oil and gas development and proposed plans to allow drilling off virtually all American coastlines. Under his guidance, the agency eliminated policies designed to reduce methane leaks and flares from drilling operations on public lands, make hydraulic fracturing safer and more transparent, and require drilling and mining companies to pay a fair share for resources extracted from public lands‚ all at the behest of the oil and gas industry.
Anti-conservation politicians from Utah and Alaska
Many elected officials from Utah and Alaska have long expressed extreme views about our national public lands, with some advocating for the elimination of national monuments, drilling in wildlife refuges, or the wholesale transfer of public lands to states. As Interior Secretary, Zinke curried favor with those politicians, particularly Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), hiring Utah officials to oversee the Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service, and Alaska officials to advise him on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Zinke rapidly advanced policies sought by some politicians from those two states‚ eliminating more than two million acresfrom national monuments in Utah, reversing Interior policy to allow a road through wilderness within Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, and rapidly advancing drilling within Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Florida Governor Rick Scott
Early in Zinke’s tenure, the Interior Department announced a proposal to allow oil and gas drilling off virtually the entire American coastline. The sweeping plan was immensely unpopular and opposed by virtually every governor of a coastal state, regardless of party. The proposed policy was also a political landmine for Florida Governor Rick Scott, who at the time was locked in a close campaign for U.S. Senate and fighting to fend off attacks on his environmental record.
Instead of moving forward with the standard process of accepting comments from the public and producing a new draft plan, Zinke hopped on a plane to Florida where he staged a hastily-arranged press conference with Rick Scott in the Tallahassee airport to deliver the message that he had exempted Florida from the offshore drilling plan. The move outraged governors and senators from other coastal states, leading to allegations of political favoritism.
David Bernhardt’s former lobbying and legal clients
As Interior Secretary, Zinke moved forward with policy changes that were supported and requested by former clients of his second-in-command, former oil and gas lobbyist David Bernhardt. With Bernhardt in office, Interior moved forward with at least 19 policies supported by at least 16 of his former clients, from weakening safety regulations on offshore drilling to advancing drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In several key instances, Secretary Zinke placed Bernhardt in charge of policy changes directly impacting his former clients, including weakening protections for the imperiled sage-grouse, increasing water deliveries to major water users in California, and gutting wildlife protections under the Endangered Species Act.
Reporters covering the Interior Department
In recent administrations, the Interior Department has rarely been one of the agencies most covered by the press. However, from the moment Zinke arrived to his first day of work at the Interior Department on horseback, he provided extensive fodder for reporters. Policy changes aside, journalists suddenly had stories from the trivial (raising a personal flag over the agency and commissioning personal coins) to the scandalous (pursuing a real estate deal backed by Halliburton’s CEO and taking private planes to speak with political donors).
While oil and gas CEOs made out like bandits under Zinke, taxpayers drew the short straw. Early in his tenure, the agency eliminated a policy requiring oil, gas, and coal companies to pay taxpayers a fair share for resources extracted on public lands, effectively re-opening a massive corporate loophole. Under Zinke, Interior eliminated regulations designed to reduce methane waste from drilling operations on public lands, a change that will lead more natural gas to be leaked and flared, rather than captured and sold, depriving taxpayers of royalties.
Zinke also wasted taxpayer money on personal travel and unnecessary expenses, including taking private planes to give a speech to a hockey team owned by his largest campaign donor, taking helicopters from nearby meetings to ride horses with Vice President Mike Pence, and commissioning a personal flag and coins to commemorate his tenure.
On top of ramping up drilling and mining on public lands, Zinke’s Interior Department issued numerous proposals that would weaken protections for imperiled wildlife. The agency proposed major changes to sage-grouse management plans that would lift protections on 9 million acres of habitat across the West, driving the species closer to a listing under the Endangered Species Act. At the same time, the agency has proposed to severely weaken the Endangered Species Act itself, denying certain protections for threatened species and allowing economic considerations to prevent protections. Further, after a lawsuit by the Safari Club and the National Rifle Association, Zinke’s agency reconsidered Endangered Species Act protections for elephants and lions, allowing trophies to be imported from certain African countries.
Protected lands everywhere outside of Montana
Zinke repeatedly favored public lands protections in his home state of Montana, while ignoring the other 49 states. This included approving a 20-year ban on new mining claims north of Yellowstone National Park, pulling proposed oil and gas leases around Livingston, Montana, and recommending that President Trump to create a new 130,000 acre national monument in northwest Montana near Zinke’s hometown. Zinke also made it a personal mission to rebuild Glacier National Park’s Sperry Chalet after it burned down in a wildfire.
While these are all laudable, common sense actions, they stood in stark contrast to Zinke’s actions across the rest of the country, where public lands close to national parks like Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico and Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona were leased for oil and gas development and more than two million acres of Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments were unprotected.
As secretary, Zinke acknowledged that climate change is occurring, but consistently cast doubt on any human impact, and pushed forward with a war against climate science within his department. References to “climate change” were scrubbed from the agency’s strategic plan and website, and Zinke issued a secretarial order eliminating several policies, reports, and previous administrative actions aimed at addressing climate change. After the United States Geological Survey published a report that determined that fossil fuels produced on public lands and offshore account for 24 percent of national emissions, Zinke immediately discounted the findings and questioned his own agency’s methodology.
Zinke even dove into personnel assignments, reassigning a senior official overseeing climate policy to a post collecting revenues from oil, gas, and coal companies, summoning a national park superintendent for a scolding over climate comments, and appointing a high school football buddy to review any Interior Department grants over $50,000 to ensure they “better align with the administration’s priorities.”
Though Zinke enjoyed posing for photo opportunities at national parks around the country, his policies aimed to take the National Park Service backwards. He consistently proposed major budget cuts that would cripple park services and gut the Land and Water Conservation Fund‚ a critical program to protect parks from development threats.
During a federal government shutdown in early 2018, and during the current shutdown in 2019, Zinke decided to leave our national parks open to the public, but understaffed. This has lead to unfortunate and avoidable events including poaching, visitors entering restricted areas, illegal drone flights, illegal off-roading, overflowing garbage cans and toilets, human waste problems, and camping outside of campgrounds.
Zinke seemingly saw park superintendents as political pawns, reassigning the head of Yellowstone National Park over bison conservation efforts, and reprimanding the superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park over tweets relating to climate change.
While Ryan Zinke is gone as Interior Secretary, he will not soon be forgotten, unfortunately for all of the wrong reasons. The “unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt” leaves a legacy of giveaways to oil and gas companies, drastic cuts to national monuments, and ethical scandals in his wake.