When Montana’s sole congressional representative, Ryan Zinke, was tapped by Donald Trump to head the Department of the Interior, people who cared about public lands didn’t exactly jump for joy, but some were cautiously optimistic. Unlike other candidates for the job, Zinke claimed to care about public lands and had cultivated an image as a tough guy ready to stand on principle, as when he was the only Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee to vote for permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Perhaps, the thinking went, Zinke might even resist attacks on his own department (unlike, say, Scott Pruitt, whose well-documented contempt for the EPA made him the ideal choice to eviscerate it, like the larva of a parasitoid wasp devouring its host from the inside).
Well, Zinke’s been on the job for a year now, and any illusions that he might temper the Trump administration’s attacks on public lands vanished faster than Arctic sea ice. Even a short list of Zinke’s “accomplishments” qualifies him as the boldest enemy of lands conservation in the Interior Department’s 169-year history: the unprecedented attack on existing national monuments, the call for offshore drilling everywhere, and the first steps to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. For all the gory policy details, I suggest you read any of Sierra Club Our Wild America director Lena Moffitt’s blog posts this year (but only if you don’t already suffer from high blood pressure).
What I find almost as disturbing as these outrageous policies, though, is the trajectory of Ryan Zinke the man who serves under Donald Trump.
How did this man go from talking about the importance of taking action on climate change to being yet another “science isn’t settled” apologist for fossil fuels? How did he metamorphose from the leader who told Interior staff that he would protect the department from budget cuts, to the lackey who defended the catastrophic funding reductions for Interior in Trump’s proposed budget (including an 84 percent cut to the same Land and Water Conservation Fund that he had fought for when he was in Congress)?
When Ryan Zinke told the National Petroleum Council that “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag,” he was rightly rebuked by Senator Maria Cantwell, who said that his remarks “betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of federal civil service. They are nonpolitical employees charged with implementing and enforcing laws passed by Congress.” But what I want to know is exactly what flag was this man talking about? Is it the personal flag he insists be raised to signify his presence in the Interior Department building — like some kind of monarch? Or is it an imaginary flag representing the interests of the drilling and mining industries? I suspect it’s both.
What motivated someone who talks about the honor of service and self-sacrifice to behave like a goon with a baseball bat and clumsily threaten Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska if she didn’t vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act? Why has Secretary Zinke been dogged by scandal over his dubious travel expenses (even as he tells the rest of his department they have to tighten their belts)? Why does he think it’s OK to rub elbows with big donors like the NRA when he’s supposed to be on official business?
The toxic combination here seems to be Zinke’s own boundless political ambitions (this is not a man with self-esteem issues) and the corruption and callousness that are hallmarks of Donald Trump and his administration.
I don’t count myself among those who dared to hope that Ryan Zinke would prove to be a good leader for the Department of the Interior. What I did underestimate, perhaps, was Donald Trump’s ability to bring out the worst in him — and just how much that could hurt our public lands. Zinke is taking those lands and their resources from the American people and turning them over to companies that want to drill, mine, destroy, and (most of all) profit. It’s the heist of the century, and all Zinke needed was a cowboy hat and a zealot’s unquestioning fealty.