Should we conserve American wilderness and cultural sites, or bulldoze trees, lop off mountaintops and deface areas of spiritual and ancestral heritage to benefit extractive industries?
The fiery, never-ending debate over how to manage America’s public lands will come to a head on Thursday when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke submits his recommendations for reducing or rescinding some of the 27 national monuments President Trump tasked him with reviewing via an executive order back in April.
Zinke, a former Navy Seal and Congressman from Montana, has already recommended reducing the size of Bears Ears National Monument, one of the most controversial designations of the Obama era. And while the Interior Secretary has indicated that he’ll leave at least half a dozen monuments untouched, others, like Grand Staircase-Escalante and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, may have their borders redrawn, too.
If there’s a silver lining to this totally unnecessary review, it’s that Zinke will finally be thrust into the spotlight, pressured by his egomaniacal boss to commit ecocide in an effort to erase Obama’s conservation legacy and put more money into the pockets of executives in the fossil-fuel, mining and timber industries.
Up to this point, Zinke has flown under the radar, largely thanks to the brashness of his counterpart at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), climate skeptic Scott Pruitt, who has been outspoken in his pursuit of a fossil-fuel soaked agenda focused on deregulation, regardless of the consequences for the environment and public health.
But like almost all of Trump’s top-level appointees, Zinke, a passionate fisherman and hunter who fashions himself in the vein of Teddy Roosevelt, has been acting like a well-planted virus, destroying environmental policy from the inside-out at the Department of the Interior (DOI).
Here are some of his accomplishments so far:
- He refutes the science of climate change. In budget hearings, Zinke said models can’t “predict today’s weather given all the data.” A climatologist called it a “stupid and ignorant answer.” Zinke has also tried to claim that glaciers in Glacier National Park have been melting at a steady rate since the end of the last ice age, something scientists in his own department have disproved.
- He thinks the Paris accord is a bad deal for America. Like Trump and Pruitt, Zinke has called the historic agreement by nearly every country in the world to curb CO2 emissions “a badly negotiated deal.” In budget hearings, Zinke’s ignorance was on full display as he incorrectly cited studies and seemed to misunderstand the basics of the pact and the progress countries like China have already made in an effort to meet their pledges.
- He scrubbed the Interior Department’s climate-change website. Keeping in line with the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department replaced a robust page on rising global temperatures and the consequences of failing to address the issue with a bland paragraph about land management.
- He reassigned climate scientists at the DOI to less visible and impactful roles. One of these silenced souls, Joel Clement, even wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post after he was moved to an office that collects royalty checks from the fossil-fuel industry.
- He reopened coal mining on federal lands, which harbor a third of America’s reserves. Despite the inevitable decline of coal, Zinke ended the Obama-era moratorium on new leases, which former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell instituted during a review process meant to figure out how to hold mining companies accountable for their contributions to global warming and climate change. Zinke also directed every agency within the DOI — like the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service — to shift their policies and priorities to focus on energy independence.
- He scrapped a rule that prevented oil, gas and coal companies from stealing from taxpayers. It’s a bit complicated, but essentially, these companies would sell fossil-fuels extracted on public lands to a partner company with only a minor markup and pay the royalty fee to the government based on that fraudulent transaction. Then, the partner company would make another sale — this time, royalty free — where the product was priced at market value, robbing Americans in the process. Zinke seems OK with it though, even if it costs taxpayers an estimated $75 million every year.
- He delayed, for two years, a rule limiting methane emissions from oil and gas wells on public and tribal lands. In doing so, Zinke effectively released another 180,000 tons of methane gas into the atmosphere every year. Methane is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping gas, though it leaves the atmosphere much quicker.
- He overturned a ban on lead ammunition and fishing tackle on public lands and in public waters. In yet another puerile reversal of Obama-era policy, Zinke overturned a rule instituted just before Trump’s inauguration. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had banned lead to protect birds, fish and other wildlife from poisoning. Zinke justified his decision by claiming the move was an effort to “expand access to public lands and increase hunting, fishing, and recreation opportunities nationwide.”
- He wants to open a handful of national wildlife refuges to hunting and fishing. “These ten refuges will provide incredible opportunities for sportsmen and anglers across the country to access the land and connect with the wildlife,” Zinke said, choosing to ignore the meaning of the word “refuge,” apparently. Hunting and fishing are already allowed in more than 300 national wildlife refuges.
- He threatened Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski during Trump’s pathetic attempt at health care reform. After Senator Murkowski voted no on the Senate’s indefensible health care bill, Zinke reached out with a veiled threat related to Alaska’s dependence on extractive industry, which the Interior Department has significant power over. He’s currently under investigation for the move.
- He recommended less-stringent conservation measures that could harm the imperiled greater sage grouse. Zinke’s recommendations, which allow states to redraw habitat lines and give new leeway to ranchers, open the door for fossil-fuel development dangerously close to the sage grouse’s stomping grounds. The beautiful but skittish bird is highly susceptible to noise and disruption, and has already lost almost half of its habitat.
- And, of course, he’s reviewing national monuments, with the intent to reduce or even rescind some of them. All this despite the fact that voter’s don’t trust Zinke (or Trump) to make these decisions, nor do they want to see monuments reduced. There’s even a lawsuit alleging that Zinke violated open-meeting laws during the review process. He has until Thursday to make his recommendations, though he has already indicated that Bears Ears National Monument will be reduced.
Based on Zinke’s chequered record laden with acts of ecocide, and the fact that he has taken $350,000 since 2013 from fossil-fuel companies hoping to extract on public lands, the national monument review slated to land on Trump’s desk on Thursday is unlikely to err on the side of preserving America’s unique wilderness through conservation and stewardship. But there’s still time to prove everyone wrong.
Tell us, Mr. Zinke: What would Teddy Roosevelt do?