By Ginny Ip
U.S. President Donald Trump tapped Congressman Ryan Zinke as the 52nd Secretary of the Interior on March 1, 2017. At first glance, Zinke appears ready for a leadership position: as a former US Navy SEAL Commander and past US Representative for Montana from 2015-17,
he is evidently a strong leader experienced in the field of land management. Zinke also “has an impressive portfolio on interior issues,” according to the U.S. Department of the Interior, and is often praised for his passion for nature and support of conservationist president Teddy Roosevelt’s vision of multiple-use of public lands: namely economic, recreation and conservation. Back in March, Zinke had publicly declared to uphold Roosevelt’s belief that America’s treasured public lands are “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” and vowed to preserve the 150 national forests and 18 national monuments established during Roosevelt’s presidency that have since become a symbol of national pride. However, a closer look at Zinke’s positions on critical conservation issues raises questions as to whether he will be a good steward of our lands after all.
Looking back at some of his past actions as Montana’s Representative, Zinke’s record is checkered when it comes to standing up for Montana outdoor values. For instance, despite the fact that 74% of Montanans showed support of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project in 2016, which would add 80,000 acres of national forest land to areas of Montana, Zinke had voted for the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreation Enhancement Act instead, which allows public agencies to build temporary roads, construct dams, and advance commercial logging in designated wilderness areas.
It is also unclear whether Zinke is truly a Roosevelt conservationist or whether he is using the label simply as a way of branding himself to the public. In September 2016, Zinke began holding listening sessions for a House discussion draft of a bill that would alter the Antiquities Act – the central pillar of Roosevelt’s conservation legacy – so that it would no longer function as the conservation tool that Roosevelt created. Zinke recommended changes to 10 national monuments, proposing to lift restrictions on activities like commercial fishing and shrink the parameters of various sites, arguing that hunting and fishing is a cornerstone of the American tradition and the backbone of land and wildlife conservation. Though he is not wrong – conservation is indeed in favor of saving the land for use by people in small quantities for generations to come – every national monument that he claims to be opening to hunting and fishing is in fact already open to recreational hunting and fishing. To this end, his main priority does not seem to be sustainable conservation, but rather profit maximization and economic prosperity.
To conclude, although Secretary Zinke is qualified, experienced and seems to be a huge advocate for land and forest conservation on the surface, his actions hitherto have demonstrated otherwise: he has shown to prioritize economic activities over conservation acts and ignore the pleas of the people. What’s perhaps even more worrying is that while Zinke, unlike President Trump, is not a climate change denier, the Department of the Interior (DOI) seems to recently have fallen into line with the Trump Administration’s agenda of suppressing climate science. But then again, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Having served as Secretary a mere 8 months – perhaps he will turn out to be a good steward of America’s lands after all.