Ryan Zinke was no Theodore Roosevelt

Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeInterior's border surge puts more officers in unfamiliar role Not 'if' but 'when' is the next Deepwater Horizon spill? Former Wyoming GOP lawmaker mulling Senate bid to replace Enzi MORE rode into his first day in office on a horse, and later proclaimed, “I’m a Teddy Roosevelt guy,” in reference to our nation’s preeminent conservation icon. He never lived up to that claim. With Zinke’s resignation, worth looking back at his track record presiding over western public lands and wildlife conservation.

Secretaries of the Interior direct the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, putting them in charge of our western public lands. The secretary oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and therefore is responsible for the protection and recovery of endangered species. The secretary is also the primary official who implements our treaty obligations to sovereign tribes, deemed “domestic dependent nations” by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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In all phases of the game, Zinke’s tenure ranged from bungling policy maneuvers to the outright undermining of the agencies he was tasked with supervising. 

During Zinke’s tenure, key leadership positions like BLM director and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director went unfilled, leaving political appointees like mining lobbyists to wield greater influence over federal land management and wildlife conservation. This led to an Interior Department dominated by industry influence, where climate change denial ran rampant, and qualified and experienced career employees were driven out. The Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that science was under siege in the Department of the Interior under Zinke.

Zinke got off on the wrong foot in his diplomacy with Indian tribes by attacking Bears Ears National Monument, the United States’ first major experiment with a co-management approach to sacred lands. This approach has achieved considerable success in Canada. Zinke is credited with being the architect of the 85 percent reduction of Bears Ears (he also slashed Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument by 50 percent).

Zinke snubbed Diné, Hopi, Zuni, and Ute leaders by denying them meetings during a visit to the new National Monument, meeting with local white representatives instead. He then earned national rebukes by condescending to a Diné woman, when challenged on his decision to exclude tribal leaders, by wagging his finger in her face and telling her, “don’t be rude.”

Federal documents ultimately revealed that Interior’s primary motive in the Bears Ears debacle was to open up protected lands to oil and gas drilling. Zinke later promised a “grand pivot to conservation” and recommended the establishment of a 130,000-acre national monument in the Badger-Two Medicine watershed of Montana in cooperation with the Blackfeet Nation, but has yet to follow through. 

For public lands, Zinke’s tenure was marked by a push to turn over federal land management to local governments. In September 2017, the BLM convened a series of secret meetings with conservative western state and local officials, with the express goal of shifting BLM management to reflect industry-heavy local plans, shortcutting environmental impact reviews, and giving commercial users of public lands greater flexibility to direct their own activities rather than complying with rigorous environmental standards.

His agenda is reflected in Zinke’s effort to relocate agency headquarters, possibly including BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation, from Washington to a location in the conservative West, an effort to refocus the agency away from the national interest in healthy lands, public recreation, and abundant native wildlife, and seemingly toward maximizing profits for local commercial interests.

Nowhere are these trends more evident than in the Zinke attack on federal sage grouse plans. To be sure, those closest to the issue recognize that the Obama-era grouse plans were more political compromise than science-based conservation. But these plans did apply measurable benchmarks that in some cases agreed with scientific standards for sage grouse conservation, even while providing loopholes to make them optional. Zinke’s proposed plan amendments, based on the political preferences of the states, would further weaken habitat protections.

But Zinke was not content to rewrite the federal sage grouse plans. In the meantime, he cancelled a process to withdraw Sagebrush Focal Areas — the highest value grouse habitats that are considered the last strongholds for the species — from hard-rock mining claims. And he opened the floodgates of oil and gas leasing in habitats designated for conservation, in violation of the plans’ commitment to prioritize oil and gas leasing and drilling outside sage grouse habitats. Interior’s decision to shorten oil and gas lease protest periods to frustrate public oversight and input in the process was ultimately blocked by the courts

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Theodore Roosevelt established our system of national monuments, partnered with Gifford Pinchot to establish our system of national forests, and designated six national parks during his tenure as president. Zinke not only failed to live up to Roosevelt’s conservation legacy, but undermined that legacy through a campaign of deregulation and energy dominance.

While many conservationists are cheering Zinke’s departure, it is important to bear in mind that many of the candidates for the Interior post on President TrumpDonald John TrumpComey: Barr is 'sliming his own department' GOP Mueller critic says Flynn contacted him during special counsel probe: report Acting DHS secretary threatened to quit after clashing with Miller: report MORE’s original short list were, from a conservation perspective, even worse. But Zinke’s departure does give Trump a second chance to pick up the mantle of Theodore Roosevelt and nominate a secretary of Interior with real conservation credentials.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and executive director of the Western Watersheds Project (WWP), a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting watersheds and wildlife throughout western public lands. WWP is suing the Trump administration over their reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monuments, and against their decision to expand oil and gas leasing in sage grouse habitats.