WEST GLACIER — Nine days after being sworn in as the 52nd Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke made his first official trip from Washington D.C. to a familiar place: Glacier National Park.
The Whitefish native, tapped by President Donald Trump to lead the agency that oversees 500 million acres of federal public lands, met with National Park Service employees on March 10 to talk about his hopes and goals for the next four years. Chief among those priorities is a “21st century reorganization” of the Department of Interior.
“We need to be bold and look at what the Department of Interior will be 100 years from now,” he said.
During his visit on Friday, Zinke met with Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow to discuss the backlog of maintenance within the park. According to Zinke, there is $12 billion worth of deferred maintenance within the park system, including $125 million in Glacier Park. Much of that is related to roads and bridges. Among the infrastructure priorities within Glacier National Park is the reopening of the Inside North Fork Road, part of which was washed out and never repaired a few years ago.
Zinke said that he and the president want to tackle the National Park Service’s infrastructure needs to ensure that it can handle a growing number of visitors. In 2016, more than 330 million people visited a national park, up 7.7 percent from the previous year.
“The president supports the fact that our parks are the face of the Department of the Interior,” Zinke said. “We want to make sure the visitor experience is world-class.”
Other goals of Zinke’s proposed reorganization — which he said he plans to roll out in the next six to eight months — include rebuilding relations with land users and listening more to local land managers.
“If you don’t know the difference between the Potomac, the Yellowstone or the Middle Fork, you probably shouldn’t be making decisions that impact those places,” he said. “I’m going to push as much authority as I can back to the front lines.”
At the core of Zinke’s proposed reorganization would be ensuring that the many agencies under the Interior’s umbrella work well together and better utilize assets, particularly when it comes to tasks like fighting wildfires.
Zinke also discussed the importance of utilizing technology to reach out to young people to help develop another generation of dedicated land stewards. He said expanding wireless Internet services within the parks could be part of that strategy.
Aside from meeting with NPS employees, Zinke met with the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council and received a traditional blessing from the tribe. Chairman Harry Barnes said the members talked to Zinke about the importance of the Blackfeet water compact and the Badger-Two Medicine, a sacred area in the Lewis and Clark National Forest between the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and Glacier National Park. The Blackfeet have spent years trying to dissolve a series of gas and oil leases in the Badger-Two Medicine. The final remaining lease is the subject of a court battle, and Barnes said if the court rules in favor of the owner, Solenex LLC, he hopes the Department of Interior would file an appeal.
“We’ve been trying to protect the Badger-Two Medicine for 30 years and we’re not about to lose it,” Barnes said.
Prior to departing his meeting with NPS employees, Zinke reiterated how excited he was to be the new Secretary of the Interior and that he was ready for the task ahead.
“I grew up in Whitefish and hiked most of these hills here in Glacier National Park, so I think I’m up to the task of making sure I articulate how important it is to have recreational opportunities on our public lands,” he said.