Two years ago, The Gazette praised Ryan Zinke’s nomination for U.S. secretary of Interior. A former Montana state legislator, who had just been elected to his second term as Montana’s sole U.S. House member, Zinke appeared to be a good choice for bringing a Western perspective to leading the department that is responsible for so much of the land, water, minerals and wildlife in our part of the nation.
Zinke’s tenure has been mostly disappointing. He left his home in Whitefish for Washington, D.C., declaring that he was a “Teddy Roosevelt” Republican who would protect and preserve public lands. Once sworn in as Interior secretary in March 2017, Zinke immediately began orchestrating the Trump administration’s orders to roll back environmental, health and taxpayer protections. The Bureau of Land Management rules restricting methane leakage and flaring that resulted from years of public comment were put on hold. He rescinded the moratorium that his predecessor placed on new coal leases pending research on whether current leases shortchange U.S. taxpayers on royalties.
He followed the Trump directive to remove most of the public land in two Utah national monuments, so that mining and other development can commence.
Zinke wasted his great opportunity as the first Montanan to hold a U.S. Cabinet seat. Montanans were proud and hopeful that a cabinet member from our state would represent us and the entire country well. We hoped he would balance conservation and extraction on public lands. Although Zinke made some progress in protecting our lands in Montana, he usually ignored climate change science and was cozy with people he shouldn’t have been.
We had hoped that he would have stayed clear of any accusations of improper benefits and relationships. Improper travel expensing had been a problem in his otherwise honorable service as a U.S. Navy Seal.
Zinke made some good decisions. Listening to Park County residents and the Montana Congressional delegation, Zinke put 30,000 acres of public land in Paradise Valley off limits to mining for 20 years. He spared the Missouri Breaks National Monument the shrinking that he ordered on Utah monuments.
Meanwhile, the oil, gas and coal industries welcomed Zinke’s decisions to expedite the oil and gas permitting process on federal lands.
According to national news reports, numerous ethics complaints about Zinke, convinced the Trump administration that it was time for Zinke to go. In a letter of resignation, Zinke complained about “vicious and politically motivated attacks” against him.
For us, the most disturbing aspect of the ethics complaints is that Zinke failed to lead by example. He spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on his own travel and a reported $25,000 in taxpayer money for security on his vacation at time when the administration had proposed deep cuts in Interior, even cuts in National Park maintenance budget. He proposed more than doubling entrance fees at Yellowstone, Glacier and other national parks while he spent public money on a secretarial flag and coins commemorating his leadership at the Interior Department. He testified to Congress about nearly zeroing out the Land Water Conservation Fund that remains expired and unfunded.
Taxpayers couldn’t trust Zinke to trim out waste – and sustain essential public services — when he was spending extravagantly on his own taxpayer-funded travel.
In a January 2017 guest opinion printed in The Gazette, Zinke outlined a great vision as he awaited confirmation to the Interior post: “Upfront, I am an unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt and believe he had it right when he placed under federal protection millions of acres of federal lands and set aside much of it as National Forests. Today, much of those lands provide American’s the opportunity to hike, fish, camp, recreate and enjoy the great outdoors. It was on those lands that my father taught me to fish and hunt and the Boy Scouts taught me the principles of environmental stewardship and the importance of public assets.
“It is also these lands that many communities, like Whitefish, the town I grew up in, rely on to harvest timber, mine, and to provide our nation with energy.”
If only Zinke had been able to provide the “humble,” balanced leadership he described before he took the helm at Interior.