Ryan Zinke, the freshman congressman from Montana tapped to be the next Secretary of the Interior, has a 3% rating from the League of Conservation Voters.
In some ways, that’s all you need to know: like Rick Perry, Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, and Scott Pruitt, Zinke is opposed to the mission of the department he is set to lead. But it does fly in the face of Donald Trump’s stated desire to be a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” combining Republican politics with responsible conservation.
“It’s hard to be a ‘Teddy Roosevelt Republican’ when you vote to gut the law that Teddy Roosevelt signed and used to protect the Grand Canyon,” Brian O’Donnell, executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation, told The Daily Beast. “Every time Ryan Zinke was given the chance to support conservation in Congress, he chose not to.”
By all accounts, Ryan Zinke is a good man and patriotic American. He’s a former Navy SEAL who served in Iraq, and has been floated as a possible senatorial candidate. Unlike some of Trump’s other picks, this is not about Zinke’s fitness to serve. He has also cast a handful of votes in favor of conservation.
But he has cast many more against. Zinke has voted for sharply cutting back the Antiquities Act, protecting wolves under the Endangered Species Act, against public review of hardrock mining on public lands, against a review process for grazing permits on drought-damaged public lands, and for the Keystone XL pipeline. All of these would be under his purview at Interior.
Said O’Donnell, “Rather than protect clean water, wildlife habitat, and outdoor recreation, Rep, Zinke sided with multi-national oil corporations and those who would abandon decades of conservation in favor of short term exploitation of our public lands. He’s an awful choice to steward our nation’s lands and waters.”
There are four specific areas to watch for.
First, here’s a number for you: 265 million acres of American public lands and waters that the Obama administration has protected over the past eight years. Much of that land is in new “national monuments” that President Obama designated under the Antiquities Act, the law passed in 1906 that gives the president power to set aside existing public lands as parks or conservation areas.
No president has ever “un-designated” a national monument, and the Antiquities Act does not give the president that power. Then again, Trump is unprecedented in many ways, and he is widely expected to test the law in court, un-designating tens of millions of acres and opening them up to oil and gas development, coal mining, timber harvesting, and other extractive industries. Will Zinke suppose or oppose these efforts?
Second is public lands more generally. With Zinke, Trump, and the Republican Congress, Williams said that “you would have entire leadership on public lands in position to promote oil and gas over all other public land uses: wildlife, water protection, recreation, all would be left behind. It’s incredibly short-sighted, handing out public lands to the wealthiest corporations who don’t have the public interest at heart.”
Americans’ general ignorance of the role of Interior is particularly acute here. Economists call this the “collective action problem.” A few powerful actors – oil and gas companies – have a ton at stake in these battles. They know exactly what is going on. But the overwhelming majority of Americans who support conservation have much less personal stake.
As a result, the highly focused minority wins out over the distracted, overwhelmed, and uninformed majority.
Zinke’s record “isn’t even a majority opinion in Trump’s base,” Williams said. “In every poll, large majorities of Americans support keeping public lands in public hands – including a majority of Republicans, including sportsmen who see them as essential to their way of life. Only extremists want to divest America of public lands.”
Third is endangered species. An agency of Interior, the Fish and Wildlife Service, enforces the Endangered Species Act, and, like the EPA does regarding the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, makes hundreds of discretionary decisions every year. These are subject to court review, but courts defer to agency expertise.
The reason this is controversial is that the presence of an endangered species can put lands off limits to development; in the past, violent protests have centered around such species as the spotted owl and red-cockaded woodpecker. Not because of the birds, but because of the trees in which they live, which paper and lumber companies wanted to cut down.
As a result, Zinke will be in a position to protect the 493 animal species currently listed as endangered, or de-list them if the agency weighs economic interests more heavily. Which will he choose?
Fourth, the great unknown regarding Zinke is his position on Native American lands, and the 565 tribes and 1.9 million Native Americans who live on them. The Interior Department oversees all of this, and there have been already calls in the Trump camp for seizing Native American land and opening it up to – you guessed it – oil and gas exploration.
It’s admirable that people got interested in one oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. But if these plans come to fruition, we’re looking at literally thousands of Standing Rocks, all across the country – but worse, because it wouldn’t just be pipelines but oil rigs and strip mines.
And yet, hardly any of those standing with Standing Rock even know (or know how to pronounce) Zinke’s name. (It’s “zinky,” according to C-SPAN.) A cabinet appointment is not as flashy as a police confrontation, but in terms of impact, that one pipeline is a deck chair on the Trump Titanic.
And if he governs the same way he voted in Congress, Zinke may turn out to be its captain.