Energy & Environment

Ryan Zinke Rides On

Interior secretary Ryan Zinke (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Controversy aside, he enacted real reforms.

After nearly two years on the job, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is moving on. President Trump announced over the weekend that Zinke — whose department oversees 500 million acres of federal land and has a wide range of environmental and land-management responsibilities — will leave the administration at the end of the year. A new secretary will be announced this week, the president tweeted.

Many environmental activists celebrated the news. “Ryan Zinke will go down as the most anti-conservation Interior secretary in our nation’s history,” said Jennifer Rokala of the Center for Western Priorities. Chris Saeger of Western Values Project called Zinke’s tenure “a disaster for public lands of historic proportions.” Democrats in Congress likewise cheered Zinke’s exit. “The swamp cabinet will be a little less foul without him,” tweeted Sen. Chuck Schumer (D. New York).

As interior secretary, Zinke generated more than his share of controversy. He oversaw a contentious review of national monument designations, promoted Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda, and scaled back several Obama-era regulations — and along the way he encountered strong resistance. Zinke has also been the focus of several ethics investigations, which he has called “meritless and false claims” and “vicious and politically motivated attacks” on his character.

But despite all the furor and controversy, Zinke’s legacy includes several lesser-known initiatives that will have positive lasting effects on conservation and public lands. And even some of Zinke’s most controversial policy actions — from monument reductions to regulatory rollbacks — were largely mischaracterized and exaggerated by environmentalists and the media.

A former Navy SEAL and one-term congressman from Montana, Zinke was an intriguing choice for interior secretary. He was known more for his military experience than his environmental credentials, though he branded himself a Teddy Roosevelt–style conservationist. On his first day as secretary, Zinke famously rode to work on horseback.

“The rough riders have arrived in Interior,” Zinke later told me. “There’s a lot of anger and resentment out West that our voice isn’t being heard.” He sought to grant more decision-making authority to the “troops in the field” so they could “make decisions that are more collaborative and locally driven, rather than having to go to D.C. for a decision of whether to clean a toilet or not.”

Zinke made some meaningful progress in this area. He led a bipartisan effort to address the $12 billion national-park maintenance backlog and grant park managers more authority to address critical needs on their own. He spearheaded an initiative to work with states and private landowners to protect wildlife corridors. He put forth regulatory reforms to the Endangered Species Act that will better align incentives for states and landowners to recover imperiled species. And he embarked on an ambitious reorganization of the Interior Department — which comprises 70,000 employees spread across eight bureaus and 46 regions — to reduce bureaucracy and shift more decision-making power out of Washington, D.C., and closer to the front lines.

Yet the popular narrative of Zinke portrayed by environmentalists and the press often overlooked these efforts, focusing instead on his regulatory reforms. The media’s characterization of these changes gives the impression that the secretary carried out a radical and seismic shift in public-land policy and conservation protections during his tenure — or, as one outlet put it, a “full-scale assault” on public lands.

That narrative, however, is mostly overblown. Zinke did seek to dial back many of the more far-reaching regulatory efforts of the Obama administration, but the changes were not as significant or as radical as the media often portrayed, and many sought to reverse actions implemented during the final months of Obama’s presidency.

Consider a few examples, starting with national monuments. Early in his tenure as secretary, Zinke did help curtail several national monuments, which can be created unilaterally by presidents under the 1906 Antiquities Act to restrict the use of public lands. President Obama used the act to establish more monuments than any other president. In the final days of his administration, Obama designated the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah — despite opposition from the state’s governor, its congressional delegation, its state legislature, and many local communities.

Shortly after being confirmed, President Trump directed Zinke to review dozens of large national-monument designations, including Bears Ears. Many expected the review to lead to several monuments being rescinded by Trump. Zinke ultimately recommended shrinking four: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, Gold Butte in Nevada, and Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon. Trump acted on two of those recommendations, reducing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, a 1.9-million-acre site created by President Clinton in 1996, by roughly 2 million acres in total.

In response, Patagonia declared that “the president stole your land,” and the New York Times called it “the largest federal land reduction in United States history.” (It was not. The area is still federal land subject to all standard public-land laws and environmental protections.) Was this some radical reversal of longstanding public-land policy? Not exactly. Other presidents have reduced the size of national monuments. Zinke recommended simply dialing back two large-scale Utah monuments — one of them created just a year prior.

The story is similar for energy development on public lands. Zinke actively sought to advance Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda by encouraging domestic energy production, especially on public lands. But the reality is that the amount of public land leased for development was higher nearly every year of the Obama administration than it has been during the first two years of the Trump administration. Zinke’s department has made more public land available for oil-and-gas leasing — something the New York Times recently characterized as a “federal lands free-for-all” — but the actual amount of public land leased was higher during Obama’s first term.

For all the criticism he received, Zinke deserves credit for leading efforts to shore up maintenance funding for national parks. Today, bipartisan bills are working their way through both the House and the Senate that would do something Congress has not done in decades: commit significant funding for the basic upkeep of national parks. (The funding would come from, of all places, federal energy revenues.) Thanks in large part to Zinke, Congress may finally make real progress at maintaining, not simply expanding, America’s public lands.

His effort to reorganize the Interior Department to be more efficient and responsive to local needs is also laudable. The overhaul would improve coordination and collaboration across the department’s many different bureaus — which often result in a tangled web of red tape to gain approvals for basic land-use decisions — and would delegate more decision-making authority to the regional level. With Zinke’s exit, however, the future of the reorganization effort is now less certain.

As with much in politics, the change at the top of Interior could be mostly a symbolic one. Many of Zinke’s ongoing policy initiatives, such as endangered-species regulatory reform, will likely continue. Less clear is how some of Zinke’s other reform efforts will fare, such as departmental reorganization and park maintenance funding, especially if the next secretary is not willing to spend as much political capital on those issues as Zinke did. But for the moment at least, that political capital has run out for Zinke, and so he rides on.

Shawn Regan — Shawn Regan is a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center, a nonprofit institute in Bozeman, Mont.

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