Earlier this year, Ryan Zinke arrived at his new job on horseback. Dressed in boots, jeans, and a cowboy hat, and seated somewhat awkwardly on an English saddle, Zinke rode a 17-year-old Irish sport horse through the streets of Washington, D.C., to Interior Department headquarters, where he would begin his first day as President Trump’s interior secretary. Zinke, a fifth-generation Montanan who had previously held the state’s at-large seat in the House of Representatives, wanted to make a point: Things are going to change in Washington, D.C.
“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.” His tone marks a stark shift away from the Obama administration’s brand of coastal environmentalism, which often sought strict public-land protections, and toward a rough-and-tumble management style that is more accepting of traditional land uses. As Zinke would later tell a crowd of western ranchers: “The war on the West is over.”
Higher-profile positions in the Defense and State Departments may get more attention, but secretary of the interior is no lightweight cabinet post. The Interior Department’s various agencies, which include the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, oversee 500 million acres of surface land — more than one-fifth of the nation — and nearly five times as many subsurface acres onshore and offshore. The department’s Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with protecting endangered species and regulating their habitat on private lands, and its Bureau of Indian Affairs is responsible for upholding the government’s obligations to Native American tribes. For many people who live and work in the American West, the importance of the interior secretary rivals that of the president.
Given that Zinke was relatively unknown on the national scene, his appointment was a bit of a surprise. His appearance at the Republican National Convention last year was met with puzzlement by many delegates who had never heard of him. His rèsumè includes a 23-year career as a Navy SEAL, from which he retired in 2008. After two years in the Montana state legislature and one term in Congress, Zinke now finds himself in charge of a sprawling bureaucracy with widely varying responsibilities, from listing endangered species to managing livestock-grazing on public lands. Perhaps of most importance to the current administration, the Interior Department also controls vast fossil-fuel resources, which Trump has promised to tap.
“I had no expectations, no anticipations, of being the secretary of the interior,” Zinke says. In a recent speech, he recounted how it came to be: After being summoned to Trump Tower, he had a short, wide-ranging discussion with the president-elect, but he left the meeting unclear about what position he was being considered for. When he received a congratulatory call from Vice President–elect Mike Pence the next day, Zinke responded: “What job?” Zinke’s main experience, drawn from his military service, was in national security. But as a westerner who for a short time sat on the House Natural Resources Committee, Zinke had also begun to cultivate an image as a “conservative conservationist.”
Although Trump promised during the campaign to rein in the Environmental Protection Agency and ramp up domestic energy production, he said little about public-land issues. Would he scale back Obama’s conservation efforts, attempt to rescind Obama’s national-monument designations, and encourage logging, grazing, and other forms of development that have declined in many rural western communities? And would he take up some of the more controversial proposals that are brewing in the West to devolve control of federal lands to the states?
Zinke offers few clues as to what the future holds. His stated views present a somewhat unclear message about the direction of public-land policy in the age of Trump and whether his “rough rider” approach will truly confront Washington’s dysfunctional and overbearing federal-land bureaucracies.
More than a steward of land and resources, Zinke talks like a commander of a department in need of strong leadership, tactical proficiency, and a winning attitude. “This is an important mission that we are going to accomplish successfully,” he tells me. “And the president has given me the guidance to win.”
In this respect, Zinke is the real deal. During his time in the Navy, he led a number of SEAL operations across the globe. His service included stints on SEAL Team One, leading counterinsurgency and contingency operations in the Persian Gulf and the Pacific, and two tours on the über-elite SEAL Team Six. He later served as deputy and acting commander of a combined special-operations task force in Iraq and was awarded two Bronze Stars. The 2014 book Eyes on Target claims that Zinke “was responsible for killing or capturing 72 known enemies, insurgents, and terrorists.”
Zinke will now set his sights on America’s many natural-resource and land-management challenges. Catastrophic wildfires regularly burn through the nation’s forests and budgets. Armed standoffs, such as last year’s occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, have recently erupted over grazing rights. The crumbling infrastructure in our national parks has created a $12 billion maintenance backlog. Endangered-species protections have closed off millions of acres to energy development. And current environmental policies are more likely to provoke conflict and litigation than to encourage cooperation and a sensible balance of land uses. In part, Zinke says, the problem is that Interior’s basic approach has been far too centralized and “heavy-handed.”
“From a military perspective,” he says, “the strength of any force is the sergeant, the chief, and the frontline. If they feel like they don’t have the right authority or the right resources to make the decisions, a lot of times there’s frustration. The decisions that are being made are oftentimes from Washington, D.C., and they’re not appropriate everywhere.” One of Zinke’s top priorities is to make sure that the “troops in the field” can “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 sees energy development as a national-security issue — and one he is now well positioned to deliver on. “The world is a lot safer when America is stronger, and much of that strength, quite frankly, relies on energy being reliable, affordable, and abundant,” he says. Trump has already signed executive orders to begin withdrawing Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which required states to cut carbon emissions from power plants, and he has instructed the Interior Department to lift his predecessor’s bans on new federal coal leases and offshore drilling in the Arctic. “We can’t power the country on pixie dust and hope,” Zinke said at the time.
Many thought Trump’s election, supported in no small part by rural America, would usher in a new era in public-land policy, perhaps even delivering on the promise of the “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the 1970s and ’80s, which sought to transfer large amounts of federal land to western states. Such a movement has been simmering once again in recent years, primarily in Utah, a state where two out of every three acres are owned by the federal government.
In 2012, Utah’s Republican governor, Gary Herbert, signed a bill calling on the federal government to transfer 30 million acres to the state. Its backers argued that restrictions on development and access were harming local communities. Washington, not surprisingly, didn’t listen, and Utah’s lawmakers have since pursued various tactics to try to assert greater control over the land in their state.
As a candidate, Trump indicated that he opposes the transfer movement. “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great,” he told Field & Stream. “And you don’t know what the state is going to do.” Zinke is an outspoken critic of the idea. “I am absolutely against transfer and sale of public lands. I can’t be more clear,” he said at his confirmation hearing in January. In 2016, Zinke resigned as a delegate to the Republican National Convention over the party’s proposed support for transferring federal lands.
Overall, Zinke is viewed as a mixed bag on policy. His opposition to the transfer of public lands has won him praise from some in the environmental community and criticism from some conservatives who see the transfer proposal as the ultimate way to achieve the local management Zinke ostensibly favors. He has been a vocal supporter of the Land and Water Conservation Fund — the federal government’s primary funding source for acquiring new public lands from private landowners — despite efforts by other House Republicans to reform the program so as to address maintenance needs on existing public lands. As a state senator, Zinke twice earned higher annual ratings from the Montana Conservation Voters than any other Republican in the state’s legislature — although while in Congress, Zinke earned just a 4 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, who criticized his “anti-environmental record” and his support for “more dirty and dangerous drilling.” A recent Wall Street Journal editorial argued that Zinke’s environmental positions have not been conservative enough, claiming that his “history of deference to Washington landlords isn’t Trumpian.”
Zinke calls himself “an unapologetic admirer” of Teddy Roosevelt. At his confirmation hearing, he said that Roosevelt “had it right when he placed under federal protection millions of acres of our federal lands and set aside much of it as national forests.” This view allows Zinke to brand himself as a pro-conservation Republican, but it also raises questions. Roosevelt, after all, was a Progressive Era leader. He favored centralized control of the nation’s natural resources, with management not by locals but by the expert judgment of Washington bureaucrats. Along with Gifford Pinchot, the founder of the Forest Service, TR advocated what historian Samuel Hays called “the gospel of efficiency,” or the belief that “experts, using technical and scientific methods, should decide all matters of development and utilization of resources.”
Today’s public-land-management practices and institutions — which Zinke readily criticizes — are largely the product of this Progressive Era thinking. Such an outlook favors large-scale public ownership of natural resources, federal bureaus devoted to efficient management and the promotion of the public interest, and formal comprehensive planning, all allegedly guided by science and insulated from political influence.
That isn’t how it has worked out in practice, however. Public-land management today is neither scientific nor efficient, and it’s hardly resistant to political pressures. Interest groups regularly exploit the government’s conflicting mandates and its lack of clear direction. The result is what former Forest Service chief Jack Ward Thomas has called “a Gordian knot” of laws and litigation, which hinders agencies’ ability to respond to changes or resolve competing demands for resources. “What we’re witnessing is a bureaucracy of litigation, of management by neglect, that has been causing a catastrophe for our land and a lot of anger,” Zinke says.
Ironically, Zinke is now tasked with reining in the very powers that Roosevelt helped create to set aside public lands. The Antiquities Act of 1906, signed by Roosevelt, allows the president to declare federal lands off limits to most forms of development. Obama used the act to designate more national monuments than any other president, including the 1.35 million–acre Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which he created in the final weeks of his presidency despite opposition from the state’s governor, legislature, and congressional delegation. In April, Trump issued an executive order instructing Zinke to review all national monuments of more than 100,000 acres created since 1996 and recommend whether the president should rescind any or reduce their size. But it is unclear whether Trump has the authority to do so without an act of Congress.
Zinke is clearly no Progressive Era true believer. While in Congress, he held listening sessions on a draft bill that would have required local residents to approve monument designations made under the Antiquities Act. “When it comes to a monument, I think the state should have a say on it,” he said at his confirmation hearing. And although he opposes the land-transfer movement, he has supported proposals that would allow some federal lands to be managed by state-appointed advisory committees. “We are going to be the department that works with local communities, that listens to issues at the community and state level,” Zinke tells me. In practice, his appeal to Roosevelt seems to be a way to justify taking a more active role in the management of public lands, as TR and other Progressive Era conservationists did by advocating the development of the nation’s natural resources.
In the West, where nearly half of the land is federally owned, these issues have salience. And while there is debate over the best path forward, there is widespread agreement on one thing: Something needs to change.
Today’s public-land management is costly, dysfunctional, and acrimonious. Decisions are political, not scientific, and they are often based more on national values than on local ones. Bureaucratic red tape keeps agencies in perpetual gridlock without any clear sense of purpose or direction and wastes billions of dollars each year. And disputes over grazing rights, endangered species, and natural-resource development are tearing at the social fabric of many western communities. Zinke is right that much could be done to address these issues even while preserving federal ownership of the land. But ultimately a new public-land paradigm, not a recycled one, will probably be required to cut the Gordian knot.
Over the years, our public-land policies have followed broader trends. In the 19th century, federal-land disposal via the Homestead Acts reflected the dominant classical-liberal ideas of the time and a belief in small government. The 20th-century Progressive movement reversed course and held that federal lands were best retained and managed by experts. Later in the century, as the administrative state expanded, multiple-use management emerged as a way to reconcile interest-group competition. The Sagebrush Rebellion paralleled the Reagan-era deregulation movement.
What is the future of public-land policy in the age of Trump? Will it reflect the broader backlash against Washington elites, who are seen as indifferent to the well-being of local communities? Or, as Zinke seems to suggest, will it seek to return to some bygone era — almost certainly fictitious — when federal decision-makers achieved the proper balance between conservation and resource development? And, more practically, can Zinke convert the populist zeal associated with Trump’s rise into concrete and workable plans for reform?
Time will tell. For now, the “rough riders” are running the Interior Department and bring with them Zinke’s western ethos, which he summarizes this way: “When you leave a campground, you leave it in better condition than you found it.”
– Mr. Regan is a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Mont.