(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a the final installment of an interview with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke held last month. In this section, Zinke describes his accomplishments and goals after one year in office.)
Ryan Zinke is not your typical politician. He doesn’t just tell you what you want to hear. He tells you what he thinks, and he doesn’t just talk about problems; he talks about solutions.
Those qualities made him a popular interview during his two years in Congress, and may have helped get the attention of President Trump when he was putting together his Cabinet. It also helped Zinke hit the ground running when he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in March of last year.
He famously worked on a reassessment of national monument status that had been granted by prior presidents to a variety of locales in the United States and its territories, but he also got to work on a variety of initiatives of his own that have reshaped the management of the Interior Department’s public lands from abandonment to access.
“I’m having fun,” Zinke said. “I’ve been in office for a year. Last year we were getting our revenue picture improved… This year, we will invest in rebuilding our parks and reorganizing our regions based on science.”
According to Zinke, the revenue picture improved dramatically in 2017, after years of decline.
“This is how bad Interior was. If you look at 2008, Interior made $18 billion a year just in offshore oil and gas leases. Day one in office, it had dwindled down to $2.6 billion. We had lost $15 billion a year in revenue [since 2008].”
So what happened?
“When you take 94 percent of your offshore off limits, you no longer cut a tree, you no longer [allow] oil and gas, you no longer mine on public land… you no longer allow that side of multiple use, there’s a consequence… All of a sudden we’re behind $11.7 billon on our national parks.”
To find the funding for infrastructure maintenance in parks and elsewhere, Zinke moved to open up multiple use on federal lands under his authority during his first year.
“I’m on the National Security Council for energy… Last year was focused on adhering to the president’s executive order on energy dominance… we are at 10.6 million barrels a year [in U.S. crude oil production]… unprecedented… and we are for the first time in 60 years a liquid natural gas exporter, net. If you go back a year ago before the election it didn’t seem like it was even a possibility, and now it’s a reality.”
Zinke, being a Westerner, is conscious of the value of America’s vast national outdoors treasure not just for recreation but as a resource to help pay for the nation’s needs. First and foremost, he wants to funnel money from oil and energy development on public lands to building the infrastructure that lets millions of Americans enjoy those same public lands as visitors.
“I took immediate action on our books to make sure we could enjoy the revenue so that we could once again afford the repairs, maintenance and innovation” needed in Glacier National Park and elsewhere. “I think it’s a fair proposition to state that if you gain wealth on our public lands through energy, and I mean across the board, you will pay your fair share” to support those public lands.
“Last year was about restarting the pilot light of American energy … This year were going to rebuild … the largest investment in the history of this country in public lands as proposed. On scale, as far as funding goes, it’s larger than the Louisiana Purchase and Alaska. $18 billion invested — that is unprecedented… national parks $11.7 billion … catch up on maintenance repair … a little over a billion to a billion and a half on wildlife refuges …”
The second component of Secretary Zinke’s re-invention of the Department of the Interior is perhaps even more controversial, as he tries to both decentralize power and improve efficiency.
“I think Washington believes itself to be more important than it is. People don’t like Washington for a reason — because Washington has an arrogance about it, [a belief] that Washington knows best. This last election was about proving that wrong. Folks in Montana know more about proper ways of managing the Yellowstone or the Flathead than people who have only experienced the Potomac.”
As a result, Zinke wants to push more authority out to the field agents on the Flathead National Forest, at Yellowstone Park or on Bureau of Land Management property in Eastern Montana.
“If you look at the park system, the park system is too short in the field. We don’t have enough maintenance guys, we don’t have enough rangers, but we have an excess of mid-level upper management in our headquarters so we need to reverse that trend,” Zinke said.
“That’s from a former SEAL commander. If your front line is in good shape structurally, the force is good, but [in the park system] there is a lot of frustration in the front line because they feel they are micromanaged, don’t have authority to make a decision and are underfunded.”
Part of the solution Zinke envisions is changing the way decisions are made, so that various federal and state agencies are not at loggerheads to determine appropriate land use. He used a hypothetical example to illustrate why the current system of federal land management is unresponsive and ineffectual.
“Let’s say you have a trout and a salmon in the same stream… upstream you have a dam, downstream you have irrigation, and if that stream passes by a Forest Service holding… this is how they manage it:
“The trout are managed by Fish and Wildlife (by me), the salmon are Department of Commerce … Upstream water flow and temperatures just like at Libby Dam [are managed by] Army Corp of Engineers… downstream irrigation is Bureau of Reclamation… On a Forest Service holding, the surface is the Department of Ag exercised through the Forest Service, subsurface is BLM exercised by me … and if you have a water compact it’s BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs), the tribe itself, and the state…
“A single issue about that stream you could have multiple biological opinions produced by multiple bureaus independently produced that are in different regions geographically… I looked at this mess … and said all right let’s fix it. I brought U.S. Geological Survey in, and said let’s strip the current boundaries and start all over again… Don’t use states, don’t use boundaries that were set when the Bureau of Reclamation came in and based the regions on water projects in the 1920s and ’30s… Let’s go by science… Let’s use watersheds, animal corridors, ecosystems, fauna, drainage systems. Let’s use the variables of science [to construct a way] to manage the land.”
According to Zinke, USGS came up with 13 different regions largely based on watersheds… These regions were then modified by the senior managers in the Interior Department in order to maximize efficiency of design.
“Our intent is to have unified regions. The Park Service is gonna use the same regions as Fish and Wildlife as the Bureau of Reclamation — so that we are structurally drawn to have the same regions and we are going to focus on three areas — recreation (so that trails connect, for instance), NEPA environmental review (Assign a lead agency and do it jointly… The present way to do it is sequentially, independently driven, and irreconcilable.) ... and the third area is permitting (We have multiple projects that hang out there for decades in some cases while there is no decision… As an investor you can’t continue to have your company invest if there is no known path…).”
Zinke has been criticized for his willingness to work with oil and gas developers and timber interests, but as a Montanan he is very familiar with the economic good that can come from logging national forests, for example, and doesn’t see economic development as necessarily in conflict with resource protection.
“I’ve taken heat for looking at change … for working as a change agent for good. President Trump is a change agent. He was elected I think because he was not part of the Washington political elite, that he was going to begin draining the swamp and push back on the layers of bureaucracy that have prevented this country from making reasonable decisions in a reasonable amount of time.
“No one loves public land more than I do,” Zinke said, adding he works “under the banner of what I call the American conservation ethic: best science, best practices, greatest good, longest term…”
As for the critics, Zinke said that he takes them in stride.
“I think more and more people are recognizing the green decoys, that they want public lands for their use and their use only… and it doesn’t include the weekend hunter, the rafter, the mountain biker… it doesn’t include much of America enjoying their public lands. I think we should make sure that our public lands are made available to our public to enjoy.”
Frank Miele is managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Montana. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.