Ryan Zinke, the self-aggrandizing interior secretary who has led President Trump’s assault on federal lands, endangered species, and environmental protections, will be out of a job come January. The White House pressured him to announce his resignation last Saturday after a torrent of scandals pummeled his reputation.
A former Montana congressman with an outsize ego and a flair for ostentation, Zinke stirred up intense controversy during his short tenure at the Interior Department, where he was responsible for managing approximately 500 million acres of publicly owned lands across the country, or about one-fifth of the land in the United States. His fiefdom included the national park system, the wildlife-refuge system, and America’s offshore oil-and-gas reserves.
Among other things, Zinke was regarded by his many critics as hopelessly unethical. Zinke had a tendency, for instance, to use the trappings of power to promote his image and his interests. He spent $130,000 in public money to replace the doors in his office. He commissioned official coins with his name on them. He chartered private planes for his travel. He was exceedingly cozy with oil-and-gas groups, corporate lobbyists, and conservative activists, crisscrossing the country at the public’s expense to speak to them. And he was involved in a dubious Montana real-estate deal with the chairman of Halliburton, the enormous oil-services firm that has benefited mightily from the environmental rollbacks undertaken by Zinke’s Interior Department.
Like EPA administrator Scott Pruitt before him, it was this blending of business, pleasure, and politics that helped bring Zinke down. With government investigators circling, and Democrats vowing to question the secretary under oath once they assume power, the swirl of scandal surrounding Zinke was apparently too much even for Trump. According to The New York Times, White House aides urged Zinke to leave his post by the end of the year or “risk being fired in a potentially humiliating way.” And so he did.
But Zinke’s mark on American life will be felt for years to come, because the true scandal that marred his time in office had little to do with him personally, and almost everything to do with his policy positions and personnel decisions.
More than any interior secretary in living memory, Ryan Zinke spent his time in power crusading against America’s conservation system, that broad edifice of laws and institutions that safeguard this country’s public lands, waters, minerals, and wildlife.
Zinke launched this crusade, first and foremost, by stocking the upper echelons of his department with a slew of committed conservative activists and industry sympathizers. And they aren’t going anywhere.
The political appointees that Zinke brought with him to the Interior Department include people like David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil and gas and water industries who is now the deputy interior secretary and a leader in the administration’s efforts to weaken the Endangered Species Act. Daniel Jorjani, a former Koch-brother operative, is now the top lawyer at the Interior Department, where he has written a slew of legal opinions that benefit corporate interests. These include memos quietly undermining the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and promoting new metal mining near the famed Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota.
Kathleen Benedetto, a zealous mining advocate and conservative political operative, is another key appointee at the department, where she has helped roll back conservation safeguards at the Bureau of Land Management. And Douglas Domenech, a former employee at the Koch-linked Texas Public Policy Foundation and a close ally of Bernhardt, now serves as the Department’s assistant secretary for insular affairs. He was recently caught meeting with his former Koch-linked employers in apparent violation of government ethics rules.
Together with Zinke, these appointees and others like them coordinated closely with industry groups and conservative organizations to engineer a broad assault on environmental protections across the country—even as climate change, mass extinction, and other crises grow more urgent by the day.
Their most controversial move, perhaps, was their decision to radically shrink two prominent national monuments in Utah at the behest of right-wing activists and industry front groups. (See The Nation’s 2017 exposé.) The attack on the two monuments was the largest rollback of public-lands protections in modern American history, as well as a direct blow to one of this country’s oldest conservation laws, the Antiquities Act of 1906. It ignited a wave of resistance from conservation organizations, Native American tribes, and outdoor retailers like Patagonia and REI.
In the name of what the interior secretary called “energy dominance,” Zinke and his team also took a hatchet to the Obama-era rule meant to reduce methane pollution from oil and gas drilling on federal lands. They moved to open the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to fossil-fuel extraction. They rolled back protections for the greater sage grouse, thereby making millions of acres of the imperiled bird’s Western habitat more easily available to oil and gas leasing. They sought to undermine Endangered Species Act protections, and limit the reach of the Freedom of Information Act. And that’s really just the beginning.
They have silenced the voices of scientists working for and with the department, including those studying the impacts of mountaintop-removal mining on human health. They have sidelined civil servants who are insufficiently loyal to their policy agenda. And they have tried their damnedest to ignore the climate crisis, going so far as to eliminate all reference to climate change from their agency’s most recent five-year strategic plan, according to a leaked document obtained by The Nation.
All this unfolded even as a recent government report found that nearly a quarter of carbon emissions in the United States come from fossil fuels extracted on federal lands that the Interior Department oversees.
And there’s no sign that Zinke’s departure will in any way alter the Interior Department’s current course. The secretary is stepping down, it’s true, but the personnel he installed throughout his agency will live on without him like so many invasive weeds.
David Bernhardt, a savvy bureaucrat and sophisticated political operative who many conservationists believe has been the guiding force at Trump’s Interior Department all along, will now step in as acting interior secretary. Bernhardt, in other words, has more power than ever, as do the other conservative operatives and industry sympathizers embedded at the agency. They will no doubt continue coordinating closely with fossil-fuel companies, conservative groups, and rich Republican donors—and as they do, you can expect them to slash environmental protections, exacerbate the climate crisis, and erode the public trust at the same feverish pace.
The figurehead is gone, but the body lurches forward.