What kind of interior secretary will Ryan Zinke be?

Apr 16, 2017

When it comes to the federal government’s stewardship of the environment, there is perhaps no more important official than the secretary of the interior. Ryan Zinke, a former Montana Republican congressman, recently took on the job, and he is being watched closely by organizations on both sides of the political divide.

Dale Hall, CEO of Ducks Unlimited and former director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service under George W. Bush, applauds Secretary Zinke’s appointment. Hall says he and his organization feel Zinke understands the issues that the Department of the Interior is faced with.

“We believe he understands our concerns — and by, ‘our,’ I mean the traditional hunting and fishing community that has really paid for the conservation in this country and has been there to try and help make sure conservation is a generation-to-generation legacy,” Hall says. “We really believe that his background growing up in Montana, living near national parks, living on the land, will help him be a good secretary.”

The Department of the Interior oversees one in every five acres of the United States. Zinke’s wide-ranging portfolio includes managing national parks, overseeing Native American affairs and directing mineral and energy extraction policy on public lands.

Zinke made quite an impression when he showed up to work on his first day on the back of a horse. Hall thinks Zinke wanted to send a message that "he is tied to the land, that the land belongs to the people who use it and that he’s going to be the person to make sure that the public gets to use those lands.”

Zinke made it clear that he believes himself to be a “Theodore Roosevelt conservationist,” Hall says. Roosevelt supported creating national forests and national parks and began the National Wildlife Refuge System, but “while there are definitely places ... where we go in and take only photographs and leave only footprints, the vast majority of public lands are meant for the people to be able to have multiple uses on.”

One example of "multiple uses," here, has to do with mineral extraction: Hall says “there are laws to be followed” but “the public is entitled, after following all the rules associated with it, to [be] able to make those extractions.” He thinks Secretary Zinke believes the same.

Secretary Zinke is on the record as saying he disagrees with the idea of transferring federal public lands to the states. Hall says this is one of the reasons his organization is in favor of Zinke.

“We completely agree with that. Federal lands truly belong to all of the people of the United States,” he says. “To discuss shifting federal lands to a specific state really overlooks and bypasses the rest of the owners of that land. We really do believe that land that is federal and public should stay in federal holding and for the public, and we support his approach to this 100 percent.”

Hall believes the two most challenging issues facing Zinke are the Endangered Species Act and energy extraction on federal lands. The Endangered Species Act must be brought back to “where people stop fighting and start making it work the right way,” Hall says.

Related: President Trump, will you preserve the Endangered Species Act?

The same is true for energy. “America is still addicted to carbon and, whether we like it or not, we're not ready to flip the switch yet and go to solar and geothermal and all the other types of renewable resources. We're just not ready for that yet, from the grid standpoint.”

Zinke's biggest challenge, however, may be the new budget released by President Donald Trump. Trump proposes cutting the Interior Department’s budget by 12 percent. While at first vowing to fight for full funding of his agency, Zinke appears to have accepted that he will have to make do with less.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

From Living on Earth ©2017 World Media Foundation