Pleasing Everyone and No One

Zinke's effort to be so many different things to so many different stakeholders is falling flat

By Kellyn Brown

Interior Secretary and Whitefish native Ryan Zinke is many things to many people. An advocate for local control and a micromanager. An advocate for more natural resource development and a conservationist. An advocate for more public land and shrinking national monuments. A self-proclaimed Teddy Roosevelt Republican and one of President Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters.

The problem is, these things often contradict each other, and the balancing act has become so precarious that fewer, on any side, are pleased.

The latest, and perhaps most glaring, example of that is the Interior secretary’s leaked memos that outline his proposal to shrink national monuments, except in Montana.

Zinke, who Trump tasked to review controversial monuments declared by his predecessors, recommends making them smaller in Utah, Oregon and Nevada. He proposes lifting some restrictions on monuments in Maine and New Mexico. This may please some. Except in his home state, he has an altogether different plan.

He had already declared that Upper Missouri River Breaks in central Montana would remain intact — to the chagrin of some conservatives and delight of conservationists. Now, in his latest proposal, he wants to ban mining near Yellowstone National Park and create a brand new national monument in the Badger-Two Medicine area adjacent to Glacier National Park. This may please some. Except it’s also contradictory, as Zinke’s home state would receive increased environmental protection, while others would see their own reduced.

Now fewer are pleased on any side.

“It’s terribly disappointing,” William Perry Pendley, president of the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation, told the Associated Press. “What the secretary ought to be sending to the president is a recommendation to repeal the Antiquities Act, to put an end to this issue.”

Pendley’s group represents Louisiana oil and gas company Solenex, which wants to drill in the Badger-Two Medicine area.

For their part, conservationists are also irked.

“It’s totally favoritism,” Land Tawney, president of the conservation group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said. “You can’t talk out of both sides of your mouth.”

But that’s what Zinke does.

When he was appointed Interior secretary he stressed the need for more local control in the country’s national parks. Except when he opposed Glacier Park’s plan for combating aquatic invasive species, he asked them to change it. And when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg toured Glacier, Zinke’s office prevented the park’s two climate-change experts from participating.

Whether top park officials should take time to meet a tech titan is open to debate. But Zinke at once acknowledges that the “climate is changing” and “I’m not an expert in the field.” So why prevent actual Glacier climate experts from discussing it with a high-profile visitor?   

While touring national monuments over the summer, Zinke continually stressed the need to improve morale at the Interior. He was fond of saying: “We should be the happy department.” Except last week in a speech to an oil industry group, he said, “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.”

Zinke is nothing if not ambitious — he’s rumored to perhaps run for U.S. Senate in 2018 or governor in 2020. But in his effort be so many different things to so many different stakeholders, it’s hard to know what he believes at all.

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