Dems, environmentalists cheer Zinke's departure

Democratic lawmakers joined conservation groups Saturday in cheering President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate GOP budget ignores Trump, cuts defense Trump says he'll nominate Stephen Moore to Fed White House: ISIS territory in Syria has been 100 percent eliminated MORE’s announcement that Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeInterior reverses decision at heart of Zinke criminal investigation Acting Interior chief moves to protect access to public lands Overnight Energy: Judge halts drilling on Wyoming public lands over climate change | Dems demand details on Interior's offshore drilling plans | Trump mocks wind power MORE is leaving his job by the end of the year.

Zinke’s departure comes as Democrats prepare to take over as the majority in the House, which included gearing up to challenge policies created under Zinke and questioning a number of the secretary’s own ethical decisions.

Under Zinke’s watch, the Interior Department carried out an aggressively pro-industry agenda, angering greens and animal rights groups who had hoped the secretary would live up to his promises to be a Teddy Roosevelt-style conservationist.

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The secretary also came under fire for government spending, as well as questionable personal deals he entered into that some viewed as a conflict of interest.

“Ryan Zinke was one of the most toxic members of the cabinet in the way he treated our environment, our precious public lands, and the way he treated the govt like it was his personal honey pot,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis Schumer4 in 5 Americans say they support net neutrality: poll GOP senator: Trump's criticism of McCain 'deplorable' Schumer to introduce bill naming Senate office building after McCain amid Trump uproar MORE (D-N.Y.) tweeted.

“The swamp cabinet will be a little less foul without him.”

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who’s in line to be the next chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee when Democrats take the majority next month, expressed a desire to move forward from Zinke.

“This is no kind of victory, but I’m hopeful that it is a genuine turning of the page,” he said. “Secretary Zinke’s successor has a chance to move on from on an unfortunate Trump administration record of environmental mismanagement and decline.” 

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), a member of the Natural Resources panel, said he “will not miss” Zinke.

“Ryan Zinke’s tenure at Interior was a never-ending stream of terrible management decisions, increased exploitation of public lands, reduced protections for wildlife, total disregard for the work of scientists, and an alarming number of ethical lapses,” he tweeted

Beyer said Zinke is “avoiding the accountability” of having Democrats in the House majority by leaving now.

Environmentalists and conservationists were quick to celebrate Zinke’s departure, pointing out all of the policy changes he enacted during his 19 months on the job, including the decision to shrink the boundaries of two national monuments and opening up offshore oil and gas exploration.

“Ryan Zinke will go down as the most anti-conservation Interior secretary in our nation’s history,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities. “By following President Trump’s marching orders to attack our public lands, Secretary Zinke oversaw an unprecedented and likely illegal attack on America’s national monuments.”

“Ryan Zinke was wholly unqualified to lead the Department of the Interior,” said Ana Unruh Cohen, managing director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “He lacks the ethics, integrity and the dedication to the agency’s core mission to act as a steward for America’s public lands, wildlife and natural resources.”

Nevertheless, Zinke will eventually be replaced, and conservationists are bracing for Trump to pick a candidate whose positions they most likely will equally dislike.

David Bernhardt, Zinke’s deputy, is the most likely person to take over the secretary position when Zinke leaves.

Bernhardt, a former energy lobbyist, would be as keen to continue fossil fuel and mineral extraction on public lands as Zinke has been, the greens argue.

“Allowing David Bernhardt to continue to call the shots will still be just as ugly. Different people, same appetite for greed and profit,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

“We cannot allow a lobbyist like David Bernhardt to transform our public lands and waters into oil and gas production zones when we have basically a decade left to avoid climate catastrophe, said Janet Redman, climate director at Greenpeace USA.

“Luckily, we have new political leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives who campaigned on halting climate change and sparking a transition away from fossil fuels. They can start delivering on their campaign promises by investigating corruption and ethical violations at the Interior Department and making sure that Bernhardt doesn’t continue the Trump administration policy of selling off our federal lands and waters to the highest bidder.”