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Know the West

Who is Ryan Zinke, really?

Trump’s Interior secretary pick set high standards for himself, but his lofty promises to rural voters are a problem.


The newly drafted secretary of the Interior Department, Ryan Zinke, takes pride in comparing his conservation principles to those of Theodore Roosevelt. After all, Roosevelt’s handiwork looms dramatically over Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana, even more than Mount Rushmore looms over the plains of South Dakota.

Look north from downtown Whitefish and you will see the ski runs of Big Mountain, an increasingly posh ski resort. Look to the east, and there’s the Great Northern Mountain, one of the highest peaks of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.

The ski hill and wilderness areas are both on the Flathead National Forest, which Theodore Roosevelt created with the stroke of a presidential pen in 1908. A bit farther upstream is Glacier National Park. This year, a record 2.8 million people visited Glacier Park, showering gateway towns with money along the way. Glacier was created in 1910, after a long fight lead by Roosevelt’s disciple, George B. Grinnell, and Roosevelt’s outdoorsy clique, the Boone and Crockett Club.

Ryan Zinke, who has served fewer than two terms in Congress, remains a relatively unknown figure in the world of natural resource politics. Whenever he has entered a national debate on cable news, it has been to make hawkish remarks on national security issues, touting his credentials as a former Navy SEAL.

U.S. Congressman Ryan Zinke of Montana speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference.
Gage Skidmore/Flickr user

But the Department of Interior‘s responsibilities lie within America’s boundaries, and especially in the West. Of the 640 million acres of federal public land in the United States, 500 million acres are under the purview of Interior. It’s a heady portfolio that includes national parks, national wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management lands and some national monuments. Interior also includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.

Zinke’s record on natural resources issues appears to be somewhat contradictory. When he issued a news release accepting the nomination to lead the Department of the Interior, he vowed to follow in the footsteps of Theodore Roosevelt. Indeed, since his first run at the state Legislature in Montana, he has often invoked the memory of that conservation icon.

Yet many environmental groups greeted his nomination for Interior boss with dismay, citing his congressional approval rating of only 3 percent from the national League of Conservation Voters. There’s also his tight connection to the coal and fossil fuel industries.

Sportsmen’s groups were warmer, noting that Zinke hunts and fishes and has at times stood up against some Republican leaders. He is against the sale of public lands and supports the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Understanding a few key facts about Zinke may provide context as to how he will run the Interior Department:

  • Zinke is a coal-promoting politician from a coal-producing state.
  • He waxes nostalgic about the good old days of the Western timber industry and pushes for more logging on national forests.
  • At the same time, Zinke appears to understand how protected wild lands such as Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness contribute both to the economic vitality and the quality of life in small communities.

You can count on Zinke to push for the delisting of species under the Endangered Species Act, particularly the grizzly bear. In Whitefish, grizzlies act like super-size raccoons and routinely raid garbage cans.

But here’s the dilemma: Trump, and now by extension, Zinke, made a lot of promises to rural voters. They expect to see jobs coming back to loggers, sawmills and coal fields in rural America. Once regulations get purged, they were assured, America will be great again — at least according to their idea of greatness.

Trouble is, those jobs are gone for reasons that are a lot more complicated than overbearing regulations. It’s magical thinking to imagine that Trump or his Interior secretary can or will bring them back. You don’t get very far driving into the future when you’re looking in the rear-view mirror.

Zinke is setting a high standard for himself. Theodore Roosevelt loved science and constantly embraced new ideas. He spoke out vigorously against industries that, in his words, were out to “skin” the American landscape.

Yes, he loved the vigorous outdoor life and he delighted in his battleships, but he was also a scholar with a vision for America. TR paid a devastating political price for his principles in his lifetime. He was abandoned by the Republican Party, though his face later was carved on a mountain, a few decades after his death.

If Secretary Zinke truly wants to follow in the conservation footsteps of Roosevelt, he has his work cut out for him.


Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes in Montana.