Zinke must change direction and support conservation

Zinke must change direction and support conservation
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Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeAlaska oil and gas lease sale nets .5 million Former Koch adviser to oversee Interior Department's FOIA requests The Year Ahead: Dems under pressure to deliver on green agenda MORE once said he was an “unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt.” In fact, upon being sworn in as our country’s 52nd Secretary of Interior, he tweeted “I shall uphold Teddy Roosevelt’s belief that our #publiclands are ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Those who visit, enjoy and work so hard to protect our national parks and public lands hoped Zinke would lead using these values held by President Theodore Roosevelt, who believed in protecting our nation’s treasures. This hasn’t been the case. In fact, he has actively worked for the last 18 months to repeatedly roll back protections for our public lands, conceding to industry interests and working to dismantle our country’s strong conservation legacy.

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After months of ignoring local communities, Native American tribal nations and his own staff, Zinke announced earlier this summer that he was making a “grand pivot” from energy development towards conservation. Considering the form, function and decision-making speed at which Zinke has managed the Interior thus far, there’s still time for him to change course and fulfill his responsibility to steward our public lands. In fact, here are five reasonable and achievable actions that he can undertake now to start to make good on his commitment to protect and manage our nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage:

Zinke can protect lands and cultural sites in the original Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments rather than open them to harmful activities such as mining and off-road vehicle use. Millions of Americans agree with protecting these national monuments, from tribal voices who originated the Bears Ears proposal to local communities and businesses who benefit from these protected lands. Zinke has a chance to show the American public he hears their concerns and finally prioritize the preservation of these treasured places.

Zinke can halt his proposed rule to allow extreme hunting methods in Alaska’s wildlife preserves and keep in place wildlife management regulations that maintain traditional hunting practices. Zinke has directed the National Park Service to revisit extreme hunting methods in Alaska’s national preserves, such as baiting bears with grease-soaked donuts and crawling into bears’ dens, using flashlights to wake and kill mother bears and their cubs.

Zinke’s proposal ignores years of careful consideration by his own Park Service staff, taxpayer dollars and the thousands of people who participated in public meetings and submitted more than 70,000 comments. By returning to commonsense rules that protect Alaska’s bears and wolves, while still allowing for sportsmen like hunting practices, Zinke will demonstrate his commitment to the protection of America’s unrivaled wildlife, as well as trust the judgement of his staff.

Zinke can withdraw outstanding oil and gas leases near national parks like Carlsbad Caverns and Great Sand Dunes and prevent lands within national park landscapes from inclusion in future lease sale proposals. America’s national parks are some of the most beloved places on earth, but protection for these places can only be assured when their adjacent lands are well-managed and protected.

Zinke is threatening our national parks with irreparable harm from drilling, mining and other destructive development — despite the public’s objection — that will forever change the cultural resources and awe-inspiring landscapes at places like Zion, Mesa Verde and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks. But he can choose a more sensible energy development strategy that also incorporates strong environmental safety and public input, rather than focusing solely on the bottom line.

Zinke can protect lands near Yellowstone and ensure gold mining does not harm this famed landscape by extending the mining moratorium for 20 years. Zinke has been an outspoken supporter of blocking new gold mining claims near Yellowstone.

On Friday, the U.S. Forest Service formally recommended to the Department of Interior to protect lands outside of Yellowstone National Park from new mining claims. Now it’s up to Zinke to solidify this commitment, by approving the 20-year protection of these lands before the initial two-year moratorium on mining claims comes to an end on Nov. 21. Zinke can ensure the long-term protection of this treasured place from gold exploration and mining that jeopardizes the iconic park, local communities, wildlife and the environment.  

Finally, Zinke can, and should, trust and instill confidence in his staff, who have dedicated their lives to serving and protecting America’s public lands.

During his confirmation hearings, Zinke stated he would “ensure the professionals on the front line, our rangers and field managers, have the right tools, right resources and flexibility to make the right decisions that give a voice to the people they serve.”

Instead, he has recommended severely cutting Park Service staff by more than nine percent and slashing the department’s “park protection” budget by $31 million, while also making decisions about the future of parklands with little input from Park Service employees.

Zinke’s actions to date could have detrimental long-term impacts for our national parks and public lands. But he has the opportunity to reverse this troubling course and work to protect these places and regain the public’s trust.

Teddy Roosevelt once stated, “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.” I hope for the sake of our magnificent lands, waters and wildlife, Zinke starts to lead like Roosevelt did.

Theresa Pierno is the president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association.