Zinke’s successor needs to pick up the pieces and rebuild trust at Interior

Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeSenate panel approves Interior nominee over objections from Democrats Interior's border surge puts more officers in unfamiliar role Not 'if' but 'when' is the next Deepwater Horizon spill? MORE rode into Washington claiming to be the heir to Teddy Roosevelt, but he’s skulking out of town more like a cattle rustler, leaving under the cloud of multiple ethics investigations. In his short tenure, he managed to do an astounding amount of damage to the Department of Interior (DOI) and the lands and communities it’s supposed to protect.

Under Zinke, DOI has backed away from its core mission of careful stewardship of the United States’ natural and cultural resources. The department has bent over backwards to give drilling and mining interests priority rather than protecting public lands and responding to the urgent threat of accelerating climate change.

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In 2017, Trump issued an executive order that agencies should “suspend, revise or rescind” rules that might stand in the way of extracting oil, natural gas or coal. Zinke seemed to adopt this executive order as his personal mantra. In pursuit of “energy dominance,”  Zinke threw under the bus DOI’s mission of balancing resource extraction with the need to protect habitat, wildlife and cultural resources for future generations. 

He has reversed vital protections for air, water and public health, opened almost all U.S. coastal waters to oil and gas drilling, and set the stage for oil exploration and production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — an extraordinary wilderness area that has been protected for generations. In the process, he has presided over the largest reduction in public lands in U.S. history, chopping more than 2 million acres from Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments. More monuments remain in the cross-hairs at DOI.

Zinke also launched a war on science-based policy-making, as documented in a recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. While science weighs on nearly every decision DOI makes, Zinke has been particularly hostile to climate science. He at first denied, and then under-played, the role of climate-driven drought and heat in the recent catastrophic fires in California.

Meanwhile, climate scientists were pressured not to mention the human-driven causes of climate change in their reports, and prevented from attending scientific meetings where they could present their research results. Climate research publications were often delayed or released without fanfare and buried deep on agency websites in the apparent hope that the public would never find them. The atmosphere was such that staff in several departments operated under the assumption that any projects with “climate change” in the title would be received negatively and might be starved of resources.

Career public servants whose views ran counter to leadership were pressured into resigning, and science advisory bodies have been disbanded or purged of academics. In January 2018, for example, 10 of the 12 members of the federally chartered National Park System Advisory Board —including its chairman, former Gov. of Alaska Tony Knowles — resigned because Secretary Zinke had neither sought advice nor even convened a meeting.

The advisory board was eventually reconstituted by Zinke this month, but now comprises mainly business executives and Republican donors. It’s starkly less diverse than its previous iteration and academic experts are glaringly absent. In addition, for the first time, all research grant proposals over $50,000 must now be approved by political appointees. Political appointees, by the way, who have no scientific or research background.

Unfortunately, the problems at DOI will not be riding out of town with Zinke. He has filled the senior political ranks at the department with former lobbyists and friends of the oil, coal and gas industries, the most prominent amongst them being his deputy, David Bernhardt, who will likely at least temporarily take the reins as acting secretary.

But Bernhardt should not become the next secretary, nor should anyone else whose conflicts of interest or ideology interfere with the agency’s mission. The next Interior secretary should not be a former lobbyist for mining and drilling interests, nor should the position be filled by someone who has advocated shrinking national monuments or selling off public lands to the highest bidder. We can’t heal the damage done during Zinke’s tenure by following the same script. 

The next DOI chief needs to pick up the pieces, re-build morale and reverse course. The country needs a secretary who serves the public, not just the oil, gas and mining industries. The next secretary must respect science and scientists, and act on their advice, including stepping up to the plate to tackle the enormous challenge of climate change.

Each Interior secretary has the opportunity to make decisions and set policies that will have implications for decades to come. In doing so they have an awesome responsibility of stewardship to protect our shared public lands and manage them for future generations.

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They also must help look after the interests of tribes and Indigenous communities, as well as the people of U.S. island territories. They should be trusted to protect our national parks, wildlife refuges and historic landmarks, and they in turn, should trust and support the scientists in their own department. 

The next secretary should be in the mold of one of the greats, Secretary Stewart Udall, an extraordinary and inspirational leader who said, “We cannot afford an America where expedience tramples upon esthetics and development decisions are made with an eye only on the present.” We need a secretary who looks out for all Americans and their environment. And it will be up to the next Congress to provide the oversight to make sure that is the case.

Adam Markham is the deputy director of the Climate and Energy Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists.