Interior Secretary resigns; critics call him 'a monumental disaster'

Mark Trahant

Public interest group says Zinke one of the most 'dubious' members of presidential cabinet with 17 investigations

Two years ago Ryan Zinke was riding high. He was moving from representing Montana in the Congress to running the Department of Interior. In the West it’s the gig to get. The secretary controls more public lands than many state governors. The secretary has a huge say in oil and gas leasing. And the secretary is the primary government official responsible for carrying out treaty and trust obligation to tribes.

Zinke wasted no time in mixing it up with all three interests. At the request of President Donald J. Trump, Zinke reviewed 27 national monuments, opening their status for development, and stripping tribal governments a say in how those lands would be managed.

A three-fer.

Except almost immediately a coalition of tribes and environmental groups moved the fight into the federal judiciary. A number of lawsuits will determine if Zinke even had the legal authority to reduce the size of the monuments. As the tribal arguments in the legal proceedings stated: “It was the largest rollback, whether by a president or Congress, of federally protected lands in United States history. The Trump Proclamation provided almost no justification for removing Antiquities Act protections from 1.1 million acres of public lands and tens of thousands of historical objects.”

That case will continue. Probably for years. And, in the meantime, the next secretary will have to notify the court before actual drilling.

The New York Times reported that Zinke’s actions were about promoting oil and gas. Yet the secretary is supposed to act as the trustee for tribes. And, as the Grand Canyon Trust put it, the Interior Department has already spent nearly $1 million on “a plan for a shrunken monument that likely won’t stand up to a legal challenge when it’s complete.”

The next secretary will inherit the litigation.

Earlier this month, a blog post for Scientific American called Zinke’s policies a “monumental disaster.”

“At the Department of the Interior, with its mission to conserve and manage America’s natural and cultural resources, the Trump administration’s political appointees are stumbling over one another to earn accolades for disabling agency operations,” wrote Joel Clement on December 4. “I was one of dozens of senior executives targeted by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for reassignment in a staff purge just six months into the new administration. From that day onward, Zinke and his political staff have consistently sidelined scientists and experts while handing the agency’s keys over to oil, gas and mining interests. The only saving grace is that Zinke and his colleagues are not very good at it, and in many cases the courts are stopping them in their tracks. The effects on science, scientists and the federal workforce, however, will be long-lasting.”

Indeed, one of Zinke’s last acts was to release the required Fourth National Climate Assessment on the day after Thanksgiving. That report described a bleak future for the United States if climate change is not addressed and point out that federal lands produce nearly a quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

While ignoring climate change, Zinke instead promoted “energy dominance” a policy that is unlikely to change when a new secretary is appointed as soon as next week.

President Trump tweeted Saturday. "Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke will be leaving the Administration at the end of the year after having served for a period of almost two years. Ryan has accomplished much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation," the president tweeted. "The Trump Administration will be announcing the new Secretary of the Interior next week."

Zinke faced numerous ethics investigations. One involves a Montana land deal in his hometown of Whitefish and a foundation run by his wife, Lolita. Yet The Washington Post reported that Zinke remained involved with the foundation even after he took office as secretary of the interior, violating an ethics pledge he signed in January 2017. Another investigation involves the cancellation of a study into the health impacts of coal mining.

Another investigation focuses on Zinke’s reversal of a department recommendation for a casino expansion involving the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes in Connecticut. Interior officials had suggested going forward with the tribes’ application, but after meeting with lobbyists from a competitors with MGM Resorts International and two senators from Nevada Zinke said no.

Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, D-New York, tweeted Saturday: "Ryan Zinke was one of the most toxic members of the cabinet in the way he treated our environment, our precious public lands, and the way he treated the govt like it was his personal honey pot. The swamp cabinet will be a little less foul without him."

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, calls Zinke “one of the most ethically dubious members of President Trump’s Cabinet.” It cites 17 investigations, and says he has been cleared of wrongdoing in three cases.

Late last month, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Arizona, called for the secrertary’s resignation. He wrote in an op-ed for USA Today. “As ranking member, I have sent dozens of unanswered letters seeking information about Interior Department policies and Mr. Zinke’s conduct. Should I chair the committee in January, as I hope to do, those questions will only intensify as part of my and my colleagues’ legitimate oversight duties. If Mr. Zinke stays, stonewalling in the belief that a cabinet secretary answers only to the president will be a mistake.”

Zinke shot back. He said it was hard for Grijalva “to think straight from the bottom of the bottle."

Grijalva is likely the next chairman of the committee overseeing Interior in Congress.

Zinke also has advocated a massive reorganization of the Interior Department’s regional offices. But that plan is now in doubt as a new Congress will have its say, including Grijalva.

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports