Guest Column

Zinke Coming Home with a Lot of Baggage

Secretary of Interior's record has been characterized by decisions that benefit the special interests that brought him to power

Ryan Zinke is coming back to visit his hometown this week to address the Western Governors’ Association after four months as Montana’s first Secretary of Interior.

There were reasons to be cautiously hopeful when President Donald Trump floated then-Congressman Zinke’s name for the post. We were hopeful because Zinke comes from a place whose economy depends on a balance between our outdoor heritage and resource development. He has also repeatedly said he opposes the sale or transfer of federal public lands.

However, his long history of close relations with the oil and gas industry that desperately lobbies the Interior for unfettered access to drill on public lands was more than enough reason to be cautious about his candidacy for the job.

So, how can Montana grade the state’s first-ever cabinet secretary after four months on the job? It turns out that caution was justified.

In his confirmation hearing Zinke committed to fight for much needed funds for our nation’s largest public land agency. Now he’s defending a budget that has less for programs that help the public access our lands, and more for oil companies that want to profit from them. What’s worse is that it kills thousands of jobs in the process.

National parks have seen record visitation in the last few years, including Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. Thanks to their popularity, these parks face a maintenance backlog worth billions of dollars. Despite this, Zinke supports a budget that cuts even more from the Park Service’s budget.

To rub salt into the wound, he’s called Park Service employees “serpents” and questioned their ability to do their jobs. He’s now floating the idea of privatizing national park campgrounds – a move that will pass the buck to visitors in the form of higher entrance and user fees.

Without explanation, Zinke cancelled local stakeholder meetings and delayed important access and public land funds for states, only to release them months late. There was no response to federal, state or local inquires as to why the funds were delayed.

After years of collaborative work, Interior’s Sage Grouse Initiative resulted in plans that avoid listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act by allowing for both resource development and the protection of sagebrush landscapes. Despite its success, Zinke is now reviewing the initiative, leaving many, including western governors, to wonder what’s next. Additionally, he hasn’t responded to two bipartisan letters from western governors imploring him not to change course.

Altogether, Zinke’s time at the Department of Interior has been characterized by decisions that benefit the special interests that brought him to power and harm public lands users. That’s a record he’s not likely to mention at the Western Governors’ Association meeting in Whitefish, but it will be widely felt beyond the walls of that meeting by Westerners that need him to take a more responsible approach to the management of our public lands.

Chris Saeger is the executive director of the Whitefish-based Western Values Project.