Interior secretary Zinke calls himself a ‘Teddy Roosevelt guy’ – but he’s quietly dismantling environmental protections and yielding to oil industry interests.
He recently posed for a GQ magazine photo shoot with a fly fishing rod in front of snow-capped Montana peaks.
He rode a horse – named Tonto – down the National Mall to his first day of work at the Interior Department.
And earlier this month, he donned a National Park Service uniform to greet park-goers at the entrance of the Grand Canyon.
Meanwhile, Zinke is also coming under scrutiny for other reasons, including his use of private and military jets. According to Politico, the secretary spent more than $12,000 on a private jet to his home state of Montana, and took a private plane to the US Virgin Islands. Zinke called the travel controversy “a little BS” in a public appearance.
Most recently, lawmakers from both parties in the mainland US and Puerto Rico have called for an investigation into how a tiny energy company in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana won a major contract to rebuild power lines in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. The interior department has denied that Zinke played a role in the contract award.
The interior department is in charge of the management and conservation of most federal lands and natural resources, and it includes important divisions such as the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. As such, the agency is often the arbiter between oil, gas and mining companies seeking access to valuable resources embedded in public lands, and environmentalists seeking to protect the same lands for biodiversity, wildlife and recreation.
Zinke has reshaped the department, filling top political posts with former executives and lobbyist for the extractive industries. Deputy interior secretary David Bernhardt, for example, is a former lobbyist for the oil and gas industry. According to a report by the Western Values Project, a progressive organization, at least 21 of Zinke’s political appointees have backgrounds tied to extractive industries.
“He sold himself as a Theodore Roosevelt Republican. That means wise use,” said Land Tawney, president of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a national conservation group headquartered in Montana. “More and more sportsmen are waking up to what’s going on.”
Montana-born interior secretary Ryan Zinke – who meets with President Trump on Friday morning – meticulously crafts his image as wilderness-loving western cowboy and sportsman. But nine months into his job at the Department of the Interior, the federal agency that oversees most public lands and natural resources, the act is wearing thin with environmentalists and outdoors enthusiasts who say his early moves demonstrate strong allegiance to the oil, gas and other extractive industries seeking access to some of America’s most spectacular protected landscapes.
He has reversed an Obama-era ban on coal mining on public lands, and proposed changes that would shrink the borders of four national monuments set aside by previous presidents. His agency has taken early steps to open the door to oil exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – one of the most symbolic and fiercely protected sites of the American environmental movement. He’s announced plans to repeal an important fracking safety rule, and loosened safety guidelines for underwater drilling, both major shifts away from Obama-era environmental protection regulations.
Earlier this week, his agency set off a new firestorm of criticism by announcing that entrance fees for some of America’s most popular national parks will increase substantially next year.
“To make it cheaper for coal companies to strip mine in watersheds and make it more expensive for families to visit Yosemite is a perversion of American values,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “I think the secretary is a fraud.“
Since he took over the department, Zinke has also resurrected an arcane military ritual, requiring staff to hoist the department flag above the building whenever he enters.
Zinke, the son of a plumber and a realtor, grew up in Whitefish, a ski town of 4,000 people in northwestern Montana. The6ft 4in secretary is a former high school and college football hero and a retired Navy Seal.
Zinke made his name politically as a moderate Republican in Montana’s legislature, and easily won his first run for Congress in 2014 by a margin of 15 points. He repeated that success two years later, despite questions about whether he actually lived in Montana and earlier suggestions that he failed to rise in the ranks of the Navy because of travel spending improprieties. Given his moderate politics in his home state, many are scratching their heads over his hardline turn.
Observers says he’s not ideologically driven like Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator who has set clear, focused sights on dismantling environmental regulations in the United States for the benefit of industry. At his confirmation hearing, Zinke said he was concerned about climate change, and he regularly declares his “love” for public lands.
Gloria Flora, a former US Forest Service manager in Montana and prominent conservationist, believes Zinke is fairly easy to explain in the context of political tribalism of the Trump era.
“He’s a Montanan. He’s on the Trump team. He’s doing Trump politics in every place but Montana,” she said. “When it’s not personal, then you revert to what your team has been saying and the values your team has.”
It is apparent Zinke wants to cultivate a folksy persona for the public, but he doesn’t want difficult interactions with that public. Earlier this month, when he put on a park worker’s uniform to greet park-goers at the entrance of the Grand Canyon, a visitor questioned him on his proposal for national monuments. Zinke shut the man down with a smile and no answers.
Whether the Trump administration succeeds in changing the shape of America’s public lands could depend on Zinke. For now, his early moves and those potential changes appear to have galvanized a thriving opposition, uncharmed by his cowboy style.