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Zinke: Trump is ‘greatest boss in the world’

The Interior Secretary defended proposed budget cuts to Park Service, and more.


Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was on the Hill this week, defending a lean budget for the department, which includes the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, among others. Senators took him to task for some of the proposed cuts. Here’s what they asked about:

1. It’s problematic for Indian Country. The proposed budget cuts more than $300 million from the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ funding. That budget extinguishes an innovative tribal courts program – which Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, noted is, in some remote parts of her state, the only court system – and cuts funding for tribal education and social services. Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Tom Udall, D-N.M., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Al Franken, D-Minn., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, all expressed concern that these funding shortages would be devastating to tribal communites.

2. The budget cuts the National Park Service’s (NPS) funding by $400 million, as Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., pointed out. However,  Zinke replied that parks should generate revenue through entrance fees. He also strongly pushed for revenues from resource extraction across federal lands that would be used to answer park needs, from backlogged repairs to hiring more staff, though he acknowledged to Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., the details of such funds transfers haven’t been worked out by the Trump administration yet.

3. Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling is back on the table. The idea that the NPS would get its needed funds through more drilling on federal lands encouraged Murkowski and others interested in opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Zinke expressed interest in inventorying all public lands for potential extractions, such as on and offshore oil and gas, precious metals, and rare earth metals. He also expressed frustration that public lands cannot be more heavily logged.

4. Several senators questioned the suspension of the Methane Waste Prevention Act, a rule meant to stop the waste of natural gas at oil and gas production sites, and specifically whether the Trump administration violated the Administrative Procedures Act. Merkley pointed out that the methane rule was drafted with more than 300,000 public comments and eight public forums over five years, and that the Trump administration suspended the methane rule unilaterally after failing to overturn the rule in Congress through the Congressional Review Act. Zinke responded that he wanted to rewrite the rule.

5. Senators from across the political aisle questioned budget cuts to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Established by Congress in 1964 with bipartisan support, the fund uses oil and gas royalties for conservation and recreation projects. Congress allocated a budget of $900 million; the Trump administration’s budget cuts that amount by $350 million.

6. Zinke would not acknowledge the science of climate change. The hearing suggested an anti-science budget in other ways as well: the U.S. Geological Survey – tasked with studying the landscape, natural resources, and natural hazards, of the country – could face a budget cut of 15 percent, or $163 million, including funding for an earthquake and volcano warning system.

7. The budget does not sufficiently fund wildland fire suppression. Zinke mentioned multiple times during the hearing that the wildland firefighting budget will be funded at the ten year cost average. However, Merkley pointed out that there needs to be a funding buffer for more expensive years. Otherwise, funds for other needs would be robbed to pay the immediate costs of battling flames.

8. The budget cuts important funding to communities near federal lands by 15 percent. The Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program helps local governments offset losses of property taxes due to non-taxable Federal lands within their boundaries. It’s a way for communities to pay for services such as education, solid waste disposal, law enforcement, search and rescue, or health care. Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Udall all raised concerns about how rural communities would continue to have viable economies and local services without these funds. According to Daines, the PILT program is the “life blood” for counties out West with large swaths of federal lands and correspondingly low state tax bases.

9. Zinke would not disavow President Donald Trump’s signed statement referring to Native American Housing Block Grants as race-based and unconstitutional. Instead, Zinke said that he was unaware of the president’s statements and that the president was the “greatest boss in the world.”

10. The outdoor recreation industry demolishes the fossil fuel industry, but outdoor rec isn’t getting nearly the same kind of support from the budget, according to Cantwell. She said that outdoor recreation generates more than $880 billion a year as an industry, compared with $2 billion to $18 billion a year from energy extraction (depending on price fluctuations). But while the NPS’s budget is getting slammed, making the maintenance and curation of all those wide open spaces harder, the Interior Department is allocating $16 million more for processing extraction permits on federal lands and working to speed up the permitting process.

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor with High Country News.