With less than 10 days remaining before Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s deadline to determine whether some national monuments should be scaled back, a local conservation group has launched a high-ticket ad campaign calling on the Whitefish native to protect public lands.
In addition to the $500,000 ad buy, the Western Values Project, a Whitefish-based public lands group, released a new poll claiming support is slipping for Zinke in his home state of Montana.
The release of the poll dovetails with the group’s launch of a statewide television and digital ad campaign targeting Zinke’s ongoing review of national monuments.
Under an executive order commissioned by President Donald Trump, Zinke is reviewing 27 national monuments to determine if previous administrations exceeded their authority in furnishing protections on large tracts of land and water. Zinke could recommend that some monuments be scaled back, eliminated or left alone.
A recent New York Times report predicted that most of the monuments under review would remain intact, and Zinke has stated he will not recommend changes in management to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in central Montana.
The poll of Montana voters, conducted July 25-30 by the Global Strategy Group, a firm that primarily works with Democrats, shows waning support for the proposal to rescind national monuments, as well as for Zinke’s suggestion that some public campgrounds in national parks could benefit from private partnerships. According to the poll, Zinke’s job approval fell after voters heard about efforts to privatize public lands and dropped further after voters heard about potential plans to privatize public campgrounds.
Interior Spokesperson Heather Swift said the poll is misleading and factually incorrect. It misrepresents the thrust of the monuments review, she said, and skews Zinke’s suggestion that National Park Service campgrounds could benefit from private business partners.
“It is based in fiction and intentionally misleads respondents,” Swift said. “The pollster falsely states there is a proposal to privatize and decrease public lands. This could not be farther from the truth. No such proposals exist because the Secretary is ardently against such proposals.”
“The Secretary and the President have both said on countless occasions that they will not sell or transfer public lands,” she continued. “Any attempt to say otherwise is a lie.”
But Democrats and environmental groups interpret the review as part of a broader effort within the Trump administration to roll back the conservation efforts of President Barack Obama, who under the 1906 Antiquities Act put more land and water under federal protection than any other president. Zinke’s review, due Aug. 24, stretches back more than two decades to include other national monuments that remain a source of contention, particularly in the western United States.
“Secretary Zinke went to Washington, D.C. and left his Montana values at the door. Montanans understand that public lands are part of who we are and what we value,” Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project that commissioned the poll, said in a statement.
According to the statewide survey of 505 likely 2018 general election voters, 68 percent opposed opening national public lands to private entities, with 57 percent strongly opposing, while 25 percent of likely voters support the proposal. Montanans are even more opposed to “privatizing” public campgrounds at America’s national parks: 75 percent are against the move, with 62 percent strongly against it, while 16 percent support the proposal.
Zinke has invited private entities to play a larger role in managing National Park Service campsites, a move he says could help relieve a sizable burden from a federal agency chafing under the constraints of a lean budget and a nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog.
The former Montana congressman’s suggestion that more park functions should be outsourced to private companies has rankled conservation groups who worry the shift could diminish public access, raise campground fees and render park rangers’ jobs obsolete, while the recreation industry says the move will improve the overall visitor experience.
Private companies already run lodging and concessions throughout the national park system, including in Glacier National Park, where Xanterra Parks and Resorts — the largest government contractor for hotel and concession services in national parks — operates lodging, retail, transportation, and food and drink within the park.
Derrick Crandall, counselor for the National Parks Hospitality Association and president of the American Recreation Coalition, said private companies assuming more responsibility could help address maintenance deficiencies in national park campgrounds.
“Just as we want world-class lodges, we want world-class campgrounds,” he said. “In reality what we have is some of the world’s best campsites in terms of where they are geographically and some of the world’s worst campsites in terms of how they are operated. This could be such an opportunity.”