Whitefish has been in the national news for both good and bad reasons lately. The good, which is more significant than the bad, is the nomination of native son Ryan Zinke to serve as Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Interior.
Big deal? Well, has a Montanan ever been a United States cabinet secretary?
Word through the Republican spy grapevine is that Zinke’s “plate is overflowing.” That’s no surprise. Once confirmed, he’ll lead the Department of Interior, which manages 507 million acres – more than Alaska and half of Texas combined – five times bigger than all of Montana.
Within Interior, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administers 247 million acres; the National Park Service (NPS), 84 million acres; and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), 150 million. Don’t forget the Bureau of Reclamation (irrigation projects) and Bureau of Indian Affairs, and underneath it all, Interior’s responsibility for 700 million acres of subsurface minerals, including deposits off America’s coastline.
So yeah, moving from being just one of 435 Congresscritters to running the Interior should keep Mr. Zinke busy.
Will it matter much that Zinke is “from Montana?” That depends. Remember, Interior is a monster bureaucracy with monstrous institutional inertia. What might matter more can be summed up as: “How you look at the world depends on where you grew up.”
For example, thankfully-outgoing Interior Secretary Sally Jewell grew up in the Seattle region and spent her formative weekends recreating on Northwest public lands with her parents. Despite her short stint in the petroleum industry, she brought a weekend-warrior hiker, urban point of view to her work as Secretary.
Zinke, by contrast, grew up in the Flathead when we still had a resource economy. Our community not only played in the forest on weekends, but also worked there the rest of the week, all year. Plus, there’s the additional growing up mandated by the naval special-operations environment, where there is much more at risk than who gets the corner office.
But Zinke is not completely Jewell’s opposite. He drives a Prius, and as a state senator was regarded as a greenish, “moderate Republican.” He’s also toed the Green line on a few select votes, which in my view should give him a much higher League of Conservation Voters score than the 3 out of 100 rating Zinke currently enjoys.
Importantly, Zinke pegs himself a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican” – which might be a good thing to be for the leader of Interior.
Greens like to claim Roosevelt for their own, as the guy who introduced “progressivism” to American politics, our first, very aggressive “conservationist President.” But that’s an oversimplification of a complicated man who lived in a complicated era.
Roosevelt implicitly understood the very big difference between preservation and conservation. He preserved places outright, but also set much more land aside to be conserved and used, meaning managed for the best long-term economic and social outcomes.
In 1912, specifically in regards to the National Forest system, which he had had re-named from Forest Reserves to National Forests during his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt remarked: “We must conserve the forests, not by disuse, but by use, making them more valuable at the same time that we use them.”
Further, while Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act to preserve the Grand Canyon, he also founded the Bureau of Reclamation to build dams that enabled large-scale irrigated farming and therefore settlement in many parts of the parched West.
Finally, there’s something else about Zinke worth relating. Only months after retiring from the Navy, he was elected a state senator in 2008. In 2012, Zinke ran for Montana lieutenant governor instead of for re-election (and lost). In 2014, he won a crowded Republican primary and later became the first Navy SEAL in Congress. After that, common “wisdom” held that Zinke planned a 2018 run against incumbent U.S. Senator Jon Tester.
What’s the takeaway?
Everyone who knows the soft-spoken Ryan Zinke is also aware that he is quietly, yet aggressively, ambitious. America’s new Interior Secretary-to-be clearly hopes to leave a mark. He always has. How might he do so? By taking another cue from Teddy Roosevelt:
“Speak softly and carry a big stick.”