WEST GLACIER — Nine days into his new job, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told a roomful of Glacier National Park rangers he plans a major restructuring of the agency.
“We can take a hit at headquarters and middle management, but not on the front line,” Zinke said on Friday. “Our responsibilities with new technology, land management and recreation will continue to expand. We need to figure out how do we do that in a meaningful way. It’s going to require all of us to get out of the box. The goal is reorganizing the department for the next 100 years. I look forward to that.”
On the same day the Department of the Interior reported its third consecutive broken record for national park visitation, Zinke said he had recently told President Donald Trump those parks are the public face of his agency. And he added Trump “shares the same commitment to public lands.”
“We want to make the parks world-class,” Zinke said. “The Department of Interior is going to be the best department in the government — that’s the standard.”
He spotlighted a 2016 investigation into widespread sexual, physical and professional abuse of female employees within the National Park Service for particular attention.
“I have zero tolerance for sexual harassment or discrimination,” Zinke said. “I will give no quarter. Harassment in any form will not be tolerated.”
Zinke unexpectedly cut short his first trip back to Montana since his cabinet confirmation. He canceled a planned address to the Montana Legislature on Monday as well as field trips to the Lewistown Bureau of Land Management office and BLM regional headquarters in Billings on Tuesday. No reason for the schedule change was provided on Friday.
While he did not provide specific details of how the central Department of the Interior management might change, Zinke said he planned to push as much authority and resources as possible to the “front lines” of park supervisors and their local staffs.
“If you don’t know the difference between the Potomac and the Yellowstone and the Middle Fork (of the Flathead) rivers, you shouldn’t be making decisions about them,” Zinke said. “That has come to an end. I’m going to push a lot of authority to you on the front line.”
Zinke also said he wanted to change the character of Interior’s law enforcement personnel. While he considered the recent Interior actions clearing protesters from a camp near the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota a “spectacular job of defusing what could be a really bad situation,” he called for presenting a different face in the future.
“We want to be the helpful friendly ‘Yep’ guys,” Zinke said. “I don’t want to see the image of Smoky Bear with a flak jacket. When people see one of our assets, they should look at land management, great people, professional staff, a clean truck and the happy ranger.”
Zinke had just been re-elected to his second two-year term as Montana’s lone congressman when he asked then President-elect Trump for the Interior post. Although he was one of Trump’s first announced cabinet secretary picks, the Senate didn’t confirm him until March 1.
On Friday, he got an extra boost through a blessing ceremony delivered by leaders of the Blackfeet Indian Tribe. Before the roomful of rangers, Blackfeet Tribal Secretary Tyson Running Wolf performed a sacred smudge and paint ritual with Zinke and his wife and son before presenting the cabinet member with a black stone pipe and wooden pipe shaft. Recalling Zinke’s riding a horse to his first day of work in Washington, D.C., Running Wolf also gave Zinke a pair of beaded and fringed gloves.
“We noticed you were riding Tonto, but you didn’t have any gloves on,” Running Wolf said. “Bring that pipe back when you visit us and we’ll smoke it.”