Under Ryan Zinke, the Secretary of the Interior, it’s a sell-off from sea to shining sea.
On his first day as Secretary of the Interior, last March, Ryan Zinke rode through downtown Washington, D.C., on a roan named Tonto. When the Secretary is working at the department’s main office, on C Street, a staff member climbs up to the roof of the building and hoists a special flag, which comes down when Zinke goes home for the day. To provide entertainment for his employees, the Secretary had an arcade game called Big Buck Hunter installed in the cafeteria. The game comes with plastic rifles, which players aim at animated deer. The point of the installation, Zinke has said, is to highlight sportsmen’s contribution to conservation. “Get excited for #hunting season!” he tweeted, along with a photo of himself standing next to the game, which looks like a slot machine sporting antlers.
Nowadays, it is, in a manner of speaking, always hunting season at the Department of the Interior. The department, which comprises agencies ranging from the National Park Service to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, oversees some five hundred million acres of federal land, and more than one and a half billion acres offshore. Usually, there’s a tension between the department’s mandates—to protect the nation’s natural resources and to manage them for commercial use. Under Zinke, the only question, from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters, is how fast these resources can be auctioned off.
One of Zinke’s first acts, after dismounting from Tonto, was to overturn a moratorium on new leases for coal mines on public land. He subsequently recommended slashing the size of several national monuments, including Bears Ears, in Utah, and Gold Butte, in Nevada, and lifting restrictions at others to allow more development. (In December, acting on these recommendations, President Donald Trump announced that he was cutting the area of the Bears Ears monument by more than three-quarters and shrinking the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument, also in Utah, by almost half.) Zinke has also proposed gutting a plan, years in the making, to save the endangered sage grouse; instead of protecting ten million acres in the West that had been set aside for the bird’s preservation, he’d like to see them given over to mining. And he’s moved to scrap Obama-era regulations that would have set more stringent standards for fracking on federal property.
All these changes have been applauded by the oil and gas industries, and many have also been praised by congressional Republicans. (Before Zinke became Interior Secretary, he was a one-term congressman from Montana.) But, to some members of the G.O.P., Zinke’s recent decision to open up great swaths of both coasts to offshore oil and gas drilling represents a rig too far.
Last week, Zinke backtracked. Following a brief meeting with the governor of Florida, Rick Scott, at the Tallahassee airport, the Secretary said that he was removing that state’s coastal waters “from consideration for any new oil and gas platforms.” The move was manifestly political. In the past, Scott has supported drilling for oil just about everywhere, including in the Everglades, but, with Trump’s encouragement, he is now expected to challenge Florida’s senior senator, Bill Nelson, a Democrat, in November.
“Local voices count” is how Zinke explained the Florida decision to reporters, a remark that was greeted with jeers from elected officials in other states, who noted that some “local voices” were more equal than others. “Virginia’s governor (and governor-elect) have made this same request, but we have not received the same commitment,” Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, tweeted. “Wonder why.” Walter Shaub, the former head of the Office of Government Ethics, noted that the Florida coast happens to be home to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s winter White House cum dues-collecting club. He suggested that the Secretary “look up ‘banana republic’ ” and then “go fly a Zinke flag to celebrate making us one.”
Two days after his trip to Tallahassee, Zinke proposed a complete reorganization of the Interior Department, which currently has some seventy thousand employees. (In September, he told attendees of an oil-industry meeting that thirty per cent of the employees were “not loyal to the flag,” by which he seemed to mean himself.) “Now is the time to be transformative,” the Secretary said in a video message that showed him sitting next to a blazing fire. The plan would require congressional approval, but it seems to have been put together without consulting lawmakers. “Neither Zinke nor his assistants have opened the specifics of their proposed reorganization to public or congressional input,” Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, wrote recently in an op-ed in the Durango Herald, which ran under the headline “ryan zinke is destroying the interior department.”
Zinke is, in many ways, a typical Trump appointee. A lack of interest in the public interest is, these days, pretty much a precondition for running a federal agency. Consider Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, or Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, or Rick Perry, the Secretary of Energy. Nearly all Trump’s Cabinet members have shown disdain for the regulatory processes they’re charged with supervising. And, when it comes to conflicts of interest, they seem, well, unconflicted. In October, the Interior Department’s inspector general opened an investigation into Zinke’s travel expenses, which include twelve thousand dollars for a charter flight from Las Vegas to Kalispell, Montana, on a plane owned by executives of a Wyoming oil-and-gas company.
Still, Zinke manages to stand out for the damage he is doing. Essential to protecting wilderness is that there be places wild enough to merit protection. Once a sage-grouse habitat has been crisscrossed with roads, or a national monument riddled with mines, the rationale for preserving it is gone. Why try to save something that’s already ruined? “They’re determined to lease and develop every acre they possibly can, which will minimize the potential for conserving these landscapes in the future,” Jim Lyons, who was a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Interior Department during the Obama Administration, told the Washington Post. “They’re quite efficient, and they know exactly what they want to do.”
In the decades to come, one can hope that many of the Trump Administration’s mistakes—on tax policy, say, or trade—will be rectified. But the destruction of the country’s last unspoiled places is a loss that can never be reversed.