Editor’s note: Journal Washington correspondent Michael Coleman recently sat down with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to discuss the issues that dominated his first year leading the department.
WASHINGTON – U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s first year in office was a whirlwind of activity and controversy, with plenty of both centered in New Mexico.
President Donald Trump appointed the former Navy Seal and Republican congressman from Montana as interior secretary in late 2016, handing him responsibility for a vast federal portfolio that includes the National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Interior’s Bureau of Land Management is responsible for 13 million acres of public land in New Mexico alone.
If it all seems daunting, the perpetually upbeat Zinke doesn’t let it show.
“I love my job,” the interior secretary declared last week during an interview in his office, which boasts jaw-dropping views of the Washington Monument and National Mall. “I’m passionate about public lands.”
On his first day on the job – clad in jeans and a black cowboy hat – Zinke rode a U.S. Park Police horse to his swearing-in. He continued to make splashy news throughout the year, whether it was for his plans to reorganize the Interior Department and slash its workforce by as many as 4,000 employees, his stated intent to open more federal lands to both oil drilling and recreation, or his admonishing a national park superintendent for tweets about climate change.
No issue loomed larger in the interior secretary’s first year in office than his contentious and controversial review of 27 national monuments for possible downsizing or other changes. Two of those monuments – Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces and Rio Grande del Norte National Monument near Taos – became a national rallying cry for land conservationists. Zinke spent two days in New Mexico in late July meeting with public officials and others, and even took a horseback ride with the state’s two Democratic U.S. senators.
Despite intense public skepticism about his intentions, Zinke recommended no changes to the monuments’ boundaries in New Mexico – only management changes.
It was a marked contrast to his action in Utah, where he urged Trump to slash the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments. The move triggered lawsuits and a withering rebuke from the Patagonia outdoor clothing company, which took to social media to tell Americans that Trump “stole your land.”
“The president tasked me to get the local voice,” Zinke said, explaining his decision on New Mexico’s monuments. “I talked to the governor, I talked to your two senators, I talked to (Republican Rep.) Steve Pearce and I talked to the communities. Overwhelmingly, the communities were comfortable with the monuments. It was different in Utah where you had both senators, all the congressman and the governor supportive (of reducing the monuments).”
And what about Pearce, who represents the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monuments? He had pushed Zinke and Trump to reduce the half-million-acre land preserve’s footprint by as much as 88 percent.
“My respect for Steve Pearce is enormous, but at the end of the day it was my judgment that the (scientifically or culturally significant) objects could be protected, and that the ranchers, infrastructure and public access could be insured by a change in the monument’s proclamation without a boundary revision,” Zinke said.
Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall of New Mexico remain suspicious of Zinke’s intent in New Mexico, and have said they won’t be mollified until Trump makes final decisions on the two monuments.
Zinke said he’s recommended management changes that protect ranchers’ rights to graze their livestock at the Rio Grande del Norte Monument and give the Border Patrol unfettered ability to disrupt drug trafficking routes near the Organ Mountains monument in southern New Mexico.
Udall and Heinrich contend those protections are already in place under the existing monument proclamations and no further tinkering is needed. Zinke said he expects Trump to adopt his recommendations for the New Mexico monuments in full.
“The president has told me that he has reviewed the recommendations and agrees with them,” Zinke said. “So we’re going forward to rewrite the proclamations (that established the monuments) but we’re doing it in a careful methodical way because it involves not just us, but the state. I think we’ll see it (completed) in the beginning of the year – within the first quarter of the year.”
“And this idea that we’re stealing land?” Zinke added in response to Patagonia. “There isn’t one square inch that has left federal protection.”
Fee hike proposal
Another controversy brewing during Zinke’s first year on the job was his proposal to double entrance fees at some national parks during peak visitation times.
Many in Congress – including Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee – have bristled at the idea. But Zinke said the National Park Service’s budget demands it.
“We had 330 million visitors to our park system last year,” he said. “And we think those numbers are only going to go up.”
Zinke said the current $80 fee that allows a single car to visit any national park is “the best bargain in America.” He noted that, at least during peak visitation periods, some parks are too crowded for people to enjoy.
“It is not to be exclusive but about generating revenue,” Zinke said of his proposal to double fees in some parks. “That revenue goes back to the parks. I face an $11.5 billion dollar backlog of maintenance. I’m actively looking at ways to address the infrastructure of the parks.”
Another way Zinke hopes to raise revenue is by partnering with private companies. The very idea worries conservationists and others who envision billboards and other visually intrusive corporate branding spoiling the pristine natural sightlines.
“It’s not advertising but public-private partnerships,” Zinke said. “There are places for public private partnerships in the parks, as we have today. The park rangers don’t flip burgers. We have vendors who run our lodges. We think one opportunity is going green … maybe having a Tesla or one of the technology companies help us with transportation. We think Wi-Fi is another area of opportunity.”
He said amenities at many U.S. parks are woefully outdated.
“Some of our campgrounds were configured for the Eisenhower (era) station wagon and the Coleman tent,” Zinke continued. “A lot of people camp now with trailers or RVs so … that might be an opportunity for modernizing and a public-private partnership.
“We have to carefully evaluate what’s right for each area. Yosemite is a lot different than Glacier or (the parks) in New Mexico. Those parks are somewhat different. In some of our monuments those campgrounds are pretty small and super packed during peak visitation – but maybe there is an opportunity to expand that campground.”
Climate change views
In addition to his policies on public lands, environmental watchdogs are closely eyeballing Zinke’s positions on climate change.
He raised eyebrows earlier this month when he privately reprimanded David Smith, the superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park. The park’s official Twitter account tweeted that humans are “the driving force” of global climate change.
Zinke ordered Smith to a meeting in Washington where he informed him the tweets weren’t appreciated, although the interior secretary rejected the Journal’s observation that he “took Smith to the woodshed.”
“I would not classify it as a woodshedding,” Zinke said. “I would classify it as park superintendents should not articulate national policy. The superintendents’ focus needs to be on their parks but not on national policy. Stay with their expertise.”
Smith’s tweets weren’t deleted because they didn’t violate Interior Department policies.
What about Zinke’s own views on climate change? Critics contend that while he once seemed to support the science that contends climate change is man-made – and the notion that the U.S. should actively try to mitigate it – he has softened those views since joining the Trump administration.
“It’s undisputable climate is changing,” Zinke said. “It’s undisputable that man has had an influence, but then again man has had negative influence on a lot of environmental issues. How we used to mine, how destructive we’ve been on coral reefs, on some of the well-intended but unintended consequences of some of our levees and water systems. There are examples in New Mexico where we’ve diverted water and it’s had unintended consequences.”
Zinke makes no secret of his support for more domestic oil and gas drilling. In October, he proposed the largest oil and gas lease sale ever held in the United States – 77 million acres in federal waters off of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. He’s also pursuing oil and gas lease sales across the West, drawing fierce criticism from environmental advocates who contend the leases will threaten pristine public landscapes and habitat for endangered species.
“I’ve been criticized about oil and gas,” Zinke said. “I don’t favor oil and gas any more than I favor wind or any other type of energy. I favor American energy in all forms, but I also favor making sure that we have a reclamation plan and I favor making sure that you hold industry accountable. We can do it better cleaner and more efficient than any other country in the world.”