Trump’s interior nominee shouldn’t be from business or environmental lobby

With the resignation of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the public lands, conservation and environmental communities are thinking: Who’s next? Depending on your political or ideological persuasion, the resignation of Zinke might feel like a victory — for the environment — or a chance to continue the momentum — for business.

That ideological divide — environment against industry — highlights both the problem increasingly plaguing federal land management, as well as the opportunity President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump claims media 'smeared' students involved in encounter with Native American man Al Sharpton criticizes Trump’s ‘secret’ visit to MLK monument Gillibrand cites spirituality in 2020 fight against Trump’s ‘dark’ values MORE has in nominating a new secretary of the Interior.

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America, and the Trump administration, would be well served by nominating someone who will shake up the political and ideological status quo. That kind of nominee would have both industry experience and a track record of supporting reasonable environmental protections. This blend of economic experience and environmental sensitivity would allow the new secretary to understand the economic realities faced by entrepreneurs who secure prosperity based on public lands, and must constantly ask permission from the government to do simple things like create new jobs for working Americans by expanding their operations. Yet, this economic understanding would be balanced with the knowledge that people also reasonably support conservation and don’t want to be a tool for crony capitalism. 

A blend of economic experience and environmental sensitivity would also allow the new secretary to move forward reasonable measures to protect the environment while pushing back on extreme or one-sided environmental restrictions designed to do more economic harm than environmental good. Yet, their economic understanding would ensure that they do not become a tool of environmental groups that use lawsuits as a moneymaking enterprise at the cost of our democracy — deciding environmental policy in back rooms to settle a lawsuit, far away from America’s democratically elected representatives.

Such a well-rounded Interior secretary is likely to recognize the reality that local, community-driven solutions and voices offer the best hope of managing public lands for the public good. They know the land better than anyone else and have the most to lose from both economic mismanagement and environmental neglect. The new Interior secretary nominee should therefore have a mindset of empowering local voices on public lands issues, rather than empowering the most well-funded special interest that manipulates local voices for its own ideological ends. 

Such a balanced and reasonable Interior secretary would also shake up the establishment of both ideological extremes. It would become harder to use fear to rally the grassroots and manipulate Americans into donating money to ideological crusades when it is politically difficult to label the Interior secretary as simply being anti-environment or anti-market. 

Many, if not all, of these extremist organizations would keep trying to do so, of course. But even a marginal drop in direct mail or social media fundraising might encourage some of these groups to actually consider engaging policy conversations with those who think differently, rather than trying to demonize them and prevent serious policy conversation that could lead to a reasonable, balanced solution to public lands issues. 

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Of course, that very reality would make such an Interior secretary nominee difficult to confirm. But what better way is there for Trump to drain the swamp than by nominating someone who is not in the pocket of either the business or the environmental lobby? It would show that the president is similarly not in the pocket of any special interest himself.

If Trump can find a successor for Zinke cut from this cloth, he would be doing the country and our public lands a great service. Here’s hoping that such individuals are willing to step forward and accept the call to serve their country.

Derek Monson is vice president of policy at Sutherland Institute.