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Know the West

As ethics questions swirl, Zinke knows how to work a crowd

The Interior secretary woos conservatives with logging, drilling, public access.


In a posh ski lodge in northern Colorado’s Yampa Valley, Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke took to the podium to share his ideas about public lands and American exceptionalism. Wearing a dark-gray sports coat and blue jeans, Zinke asked the audience at the $325-a-ticket two-day event to recognize the veterans in the room. He opened with one of his standard one-liners: “What’s easier, being a former SEAL Team Six commander or the Department of Interior Secretary?” he said. “Actually, a SEAL was a better job and easier. As a SEAL, when people shoot at you, you can shoot back.” As he continued, protester Jesse Brucato rose and tried to speak, but jeers and a chant of “USA!” drowned out his message.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke greets guests at the Freedom Conference VIP Reception in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
BIll Stewart

Zinke’s tenure has been mired in ethics investigations, but his message and policies played well at the Freedom Conference, hosted by the Steamboat Institute, a conservative advocacy group that featured speakers from a variety of conservative ideologies. Applause punctuated his speech as he called for more oil and gas production, more logging on public lands and better access for hunters.

Zinke’s speech, much like his policies as Interior secretary, emphasized the importance of developing American energy resources. The United States recently surpassed Saudi Arabia in crude oil production, and Zinke said the country will soon outproduce Russia, the world’s top petro state.  

Many of the ethical questions circling the secretary arise from his friendly relationships with the fossil fuel industry. Zinke consulted and sat on the board of a pipeline company before becoming Interior secretary. Federal watchdogs have announced 11 formal investigations into his conduct, including whether he greased the skids for a brewery development backed by Halliburton Chairman David Lesar in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana. Zinke was cleared of legal wrongdoing in four closed investigations, but seven more are ongoing, and watchdog groups have requested several more.

Zinke argued that producing oil in the United States benefits the environment.“I would rather not have to deploy our troops overseas to fight for an energy and a resource we have here,” said Zinke, who served in the Navy for 23 years. “Environmentally, economically and morally it’s exactly correct for our energy to be U.S. made, U.S. produced and U.S. exported.”

The Interior secretary also broadly labeled conservationists as “environmental terrorists,” and called out the outdoor company Patagonia and its founder, Yvon Chouinard. “We never say ‘Patagonia,’ unless we say ‘Made in China,’ ” Zinke said, to chuckles from the crowd.


Zinke’s relationship with outdoor companies and conservationists, who oppose rolling back national monument protections and opening up more public land for oil and gas leases, has been contentious. Patagonia and other major outdoor companies launched a national advertising campaign last December, denouncing the reduction of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Documents show that Zinke’s recommendation to shrink the monuments ignored the input of local tribes and county commissioners, while reflecting the wishes of Energy Fuels, a Canadian uranium-mining company. 

The Steamboat crowd cheered when Zinke described his plan to reduce the threat of wildfires by promoting public-lands logging and grazing. He said he wants the United States to stop importing logs, complaining that the country allows “billions of board-feet” to go to waste by not logging burned forests. “What we need to do, in my opinion, is go back to the Pinchot model … and graze, have smaller little mom-and-pop mills that are guaranteed a through-put based on sustainable yield,” Zinke said. 

Zinke concluded by calling on conference attendees to fight socialism and instill American exceptionalism in future generations, a message that resonated with attendees. “Zinke is an American hero,” said conference attendee Bill Friesell, a retired banker who sits on the board of directors for the Steamboat Institute. “The representation of him in the media is different than the reality.” Zinke, Friesell added, “has a reasonable way of explaining a lot of complicated issues.”

Deirdre Macnab, Bette Vandahl, Nancy Porter and Melissa Hampton protest Zinke's stance on public lands.
Diane Miller

Meanwhile, in downtown Steamboat Springs, several hundred demonstrators had gathered to protest Zinke’s vision for public lands. Speakers highlighted the intrinsic value of natural spaces and the importance of public lands to Colorado’s recreation economy, and also called on Zinke to recognize the importance of public lands to Native cultures. Far removed from the three-course dinner at the ski resort, the demonstration had a festive atmosphere, with live music performances, booths and speeches.


As a group of women on horseback joined the protest, Angel Acar, a construction project manager who was new in town, explained why he was there: “I’m protesting the presence of Ryan Zinke and all the policies he is placing and trying to place on our public lands,” said Acar. “All the public lands he’s trying to open for oil exploration and mineral exploration, it’s just unconscionable.”

Carl Segerstrom is an editorial fellow at High Country News.