What will be the fate of our public lands with Zinke at the helm?
Understanding the roller coaster of Zinke’s allegiances throughout his time acting as Interior Secretary in regards to the fate of our public lands is a struggle. So, let’s lay out the ups and downs clearly, starting from before President Trump even appointed him as the man who would hold responsibility for determining what happens to America’s federal lands.
In July, 2016, while the presidential campaign was gaining heat, Ryan Zinke, Montana’s only U.S. Representative, resigned from his position as a delegate because he did not like the language that the GOP party used in the following platform: “Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to the states. We call upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power of influence to urge the transfer of those lands identified.”
From environmentalists’ perspectives, it was a good sign that Zinke did not endorse such land-transfer by the federal government to states, because often times when states gain control of land and are in need of cash, they will sell off previous public lands to private developers.
But fast forward a few months and Zinke seemed to change his loyalty when, in January, he voted for a provision that would make it easier for the federal government to give public lands to individual states. This action made many question who Zinke was playing for.
And then came his next statement, after the Interior Department started reviewing the practice of requiring developers to offset the harm of their projects by paying for conservation elsewhere: “Some people would call it extortion. I call it un-American,” Zinke commented in regards to the policy. In late June of this year, Zinke said that removing bureaucratic obstacles to development on federal land could create jobs and offer hope to nearby communities. He promised reorganization “on a scale of 100 years” although said nothing more to elaborate.
Since then, he has shown support for the Trump Administration’s oil and gas platform by calling for more offshore drilling, making the case that we are not using our public lands to their potential. “There’s a consequence when you put 94 percent of our offshore off limits. There’s a consequence of not harvesting trees. There’s a consequence of not using some of our public lands for the creation of wealth and jobs,” he said.
But many environmentalists don’t believe it. “Secretary Zinke’s call for energy dominance is a rhetorical ploy to justify turning over as much of our publicly owned assets to special interests in the oil, gas and coal industries as possible,” said Nada Culver from The Wilderness Society.
And then came the order from the Interior Department in early July which promises to review permits for drilling oil and gas on federal lands in 30 days. The Trump administration has also ordered federal agencies to identify all impediments to oil and gas production – i.e. environmental reviews of energy projects. If that plays into action, it will mean fewer safeguards for the environment and fewer acres for purposes other than energy production, like recreation.
The most recent strike against the environment committed by Zinke comes in the form of a recommendation to alter several national monuments. Although he is not recommending that the President eliminate any monuments, he declined to comment which ones for which he has recommended changes and whether those changes involve shrinking boundaries or changing rules about how people are allowed to use the land. In an interim report, Zinke already recommended that Bears Ears — a controversial monument in Utah declared by Obama in his final weeks in office — be downsized. It is still unclear whether Trump has the legal authority to take such action.
Looking toward the public it’s clear what Americans want on this topic: a recent Colorado College poll found that 80% of voters in the American West are in favor of leaving national monument designations in place; only 13% want to remove protections from public land. Where do you stand?