Zinke leaves unfinished business at the Interior Department

The questionable legality of the Trump administration’s aggressive deregulatory and development-friendly policies could end up being its undoing.

 

On the second day of 2019, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tweeted out his resignation letter to President Donald Trump. After less than two years in office, he claimed to have “restored public lands ‘for the benefit & enjoyment of the people,’ improved public access & shall never be held hostage again for our energy needs.”

That appears to be Zinke’s view of the legacy his abbreviated tenure will leave on the Interior Department’s more than 500 million acres of land and roughly 70,000 employees. Critics might interpret his garbled syntax as a confession: that he turned over public land to industry — pushing oil and gas leases in sensitive habitat, rescinding environmental protections and shrinking national monuments. But what, really, did Zinke accomplish?

Ryan Zinke wore many hats as Interior Department Secretary, effective bureaucrat wasn't one of them.
Department of the Interior

The answer: Probably not much. The methane Zinke allowed gas drillers to flare can’t be unburnt, the oil and gas leases he sold are probably good for at least 10 years, and the institutional knowledge of departed agency workers will be difficult to restore. Still, the flippant way Zinke executed his many rollbacks and policy changes leaves them vulnerable to be overturned, either by the next administration, Congress or the courts.

“The cumulative landscape impact is significant,” said Brett Hartl, the government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “(But) I am optimistic that almost everything they’ve done can be undone. We can win in court because most of the things they are doing violate the laws they are addressing.”

Zinke — a Navy veteran, former oil pipeline functionary and Montana congressman — was not coy about his determination to achieve something he called “energy dominance.” Nor was he shy about favoring industry over all other public-lands users. Following the lead and executive orders of President Donald Trump, Zinke cut environmental regulations, shrank Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, and censored climate science while pushing out agency scientists and staff. By reducing fracking safeguards, slashing methane waste regulations and cutting protections for migratory birds, Zinke’s Interior Department has made it easier to develop oil and gas on public lands.

Yet only a handful of rules — which create policies that require a lengthy and public process to undo — have been finalized in the last two years. Many of the actions taken by the administration have been done through secretarial orders, internal memos and staffing decisions, many of which can be reversed on day one of a new administration.

For example, policies that have lead to the censoring of climate science could be immediately discarded. New leadership at Interior could also terminate every politically appointed agency head and staffer. For instance, Zinke’s childhood friend Steve Howke, a former credit union executive with no Interior Department experience, would no longer be in charge of reviewing the department’s grant applications.

From a staffing standpoint, Zinke’s legacy will come less from temporary political appointees than from the loss of rank-and-file workers. The departures of career staffers, who left after questionable reassignments, interference in climate research, and policies that incentivized early retirements, will make it harder to rebuild a workforce that is shrinking despite increased visitation on public lands. 

The legal actions of the Trump administration’s Interior Department are also vulnerable in federal courts. “We see a pattern of attempts to suspend compliance with agency rules” that doesn’t adhere to the Administrative Procedures Act, said Hana Vizcarra, the staff attorney for Harvard Law’s Environmental and Energy Law Program.

As Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., takes the lead oversight role as the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Trump’s opponents could gain more leverage. “Information from oversight in the house could give ammunition to litigants or spur interest in further lawsuits,” Vizcarra said. If, for example, the committee unveiled new information that showed rules were made at the request of regulated industries, “it could impact what a court considers reasonable or arbitrary,” and undermine the agency’s ability to defend its actions, she said.

In the end, Zinke will probably be remembered more for his hat collection, bluster, multiple scandals and ethics investigations and vacations taken on the taxpayer dime than for any policies he implemented, good or bad. One thing is certain, though: The drive for “energy dominance” at the expense of the environment will endure for as long as Trump remains president, particularly under the leadership of now acting-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who is generally seen to be more competent than Zinke.

“In some sense, Ryan Zinke really was Trump’s mini-me in terms of flailing around and fumbling very loudly, but really not having a clear policy direction other than deregulation and handing over federal authority to manage public lands,” said Erik Molvar, the executive director of Western Watersheds, a conservation group that opposes grazing and energy development on public land. “Now, we could be turning over the helm to cold-blooded professionals who are industry lobbyists that really know how to get things done.”

Carl Segerstrom is a contributing editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington.  Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • BRN DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNING MANAGER
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • WEB DESIGN AND CONTENT MANAGER
    We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
    at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • GRASSROOTS ORGANIZER
    The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • JOHN DEERE SNOW BLOWER 24"
    Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • CARPENTER RANCH MANAGER
    Hiring a part-time ranch manager to live on The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch property in Hayden, CO. Responsibilities include: facility maintenance of historic ranch house,...
  • STRAW BALE, ADOBE, TIMBER FRAME, HEALTHY HOME, NEAR LA VETA PASS, CO
    unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    10-day tour from Los Mochis airport, 2/nyts El Fuerte, train, 2/nyts canyon rim hotel, 5/nyts camping. 520-324-0209, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, ALASKA
    Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.