WHITEFISH, Mont., June 27, 2017 – Ryan Zinke told an audience of hundreds gathered for the Western Governors’ Association’s annual summer meeting that a big part of his new job as Secretary of the Interior in the Trump administration is to restore the public’s trust in his agency.
Zinke, a native Montanan and until January the state’s lone U.S. representative, received a standing ovation after being introduced on the stage of a renovated middle school theater in the town of Whitefish, where Zinke, as a student, once played the trombone. Zinke, who used to represent Whitefish in the Montana Senate, said the feeling of distrust is particularly noticeable in the West.
“It bothers me when Bureau of Land Management (part of Interior) is not viewed as a land manager, but is viewed as more law enforcement,” Zinke told the audience, which included a host of representatives from the oil and mining industries as well as from environmental groups. “It bothers me when I go out to our holdings where citizens don’t trust government to be their stewards.”
Zinke cited as an example an oil company's $3 billion purchase of an oil lease off Alaska’s North Shore. Later, the company was told by the Fish and Wildlife Service (another Interior agency) that it had to move its rig 15 miles to what turned out to be an unproductive site. They hit a dry hole, resulting in the lease being retired. Or when a government requires a company to provide different groups payments as “compensatory mitigation,” before it will allow, say, a road to be built to facilitate development.
“Some people would call that extortion – I call it un-American” said Zinke, who noted that he had ordered a halt to the practice shortly after taking office.
Zinke, who manages 70,000 employees and public lands that comprise a fifth of the nation’s territory, only gave brief mention to the Trump administration’s controversial decision to review a management plan for the greater sage-grouse which Western states spent years developing.
When he issued the secretarial order for the review, Zinke said it was to give governors and local interests a greater say in the management plan for the iconic bird, but environmental groups fear it will lead to an easing of restrictions on developers. In his speech, Zinke said he wanted to make sure all the different government agencies involved are on the same page.
Zinke also didn’t dwell on the 12 percent spending cut President Trump has proposed for Interior in his fiscal year 2018 budget, which includes a 7 percent reduction in the operational budget of nearby Glacier National Park. In the past, Zinke has referred to Trump’s plan as a “starting point” and noted that eventually Congress will decide spending.
One government employee who attended the meeting said it was obvious that Zinke and other speakers were avoiding budget talk – he called it the unmentioned “elephant in the room” – as they didn’t want the meeting to sink into “partisan bickering.”
Climate change, which is being blamed for the dramatic shrinkage of the glaciers in Glacier National Park, was another issue that the WGA seemed to be avoiding. One of the featured speakers on Tuesday’s agenda, renowned mountaineer Conrad Anker, told the Flathead Beacon newspaper that he had been asked, in writing, not to talk about the phenomenon.
The WGA meeting concludes Wednesday with a talk by part-time Montanan and actor Jeff Bridges on his three decades of work aimed at alleviating hunger among children, and discussions about endangered species and infrastructure.
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