After serving as secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior for less than two years, Ryan Zinke announced that he is stepping down from the important cabinet position this month, citing “vicious and politically motivated attacks” against him.
This was rich coming from someone who only recently posted his own vicious attack on Arizona Democrat Rep. Raúl Grijalva, writing on his official Interior Twitter account, “It’s hard for him to think straight from the bottom of the bottle.”
Grijalva is the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the Interior Department. The committee is expected to push for official investigations into multiple ethics violations alleged against Zinke, holding him accountable for his decisions as secretary even after his resignation.
It’s a necessary but disappointing end to what started out as a promising opportunity, not only for former Congressman and veteran Navy SEAL Commander Zinke, but for Montana as well. Many Montanans had deeply hoped that Zinke, who famously described himself as “an admirer of Teddy Roosevelt,” would bring a national spotlight to Montana values as a staunch defender of public access and public lands.
Alas, his support for Montana values did not seem to extend beyond the state’s borders. He may have shielded his home state from many of the consequences of his agency’s harmful decisions, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that the rest of the nation was left to suffer.
And now that Zinke is no longer protecting Montana, there’s a very real risk that the Interior Department will run roughshod over the Treasure State, too. Former oil executive David Bernhardt, who has been at the Interior Department since 2001, is expected to take over Zinke’s duties until a new secretary is confirmed by the Senate. It’s a safe bet Montana will no longer be getting the kind of attention it got from Zinke.
Just last month, Zinke made an important call in directing his agency to appeal a court ruling putting the sacred Badger-Two Medicine at risk of energy exploration.
The month before that, he extended a critical moratorium on new mining claims near Yellowstone National Park. The restrictions on mineral development were first put in place two years ago; Zinke made sure they will remain in place for the next two decades, giving Montana’s congressional delegates plenty of time to pass a permanent ban.
And earlier this year, Zinke signed the first transfer payment on a major water settlement hailed by Blackfeet Tribal leadership as a significant and long-lasting benefit to their fisheries, water systems and larger community.
Montanans had every reason to be proud of Zinke’s leadership on these and other issues. Unfortunately, we also had many occasions to cringe.
We were flabbergasted when his agency proposed significant fee increases at the nation’s most popular national parks, including Glacier and Yellowstone. We were perplexed by his office’s request that the North Cascades National Park stop working on an environmental impact statement critical to grizzly bear recovery work in the North Cascades Ecosystem. We were worried when he abruptly announced that his department would be “changing course” on management of the National Bison Range. And we were embarrassed when Zinke insulted Interior employees, accusing “30 percent” of them of being “disloyal to the flag.”
The list of concerns only grew over Zinke’s term in office. Under his watch, the Interior Department’s national monument review drew condemnation for critical errors and overall sloppy work. News organizations probed for financial information and found that Zinke spent thousands of dollars on questionable helicopter trips — and that wildfire preparedness funds were inappropriately used to pay for at least one of these tours. The Interior Department explained that this was a simple mistake.
But the mistakes seemed to pile up — along with the perception that Zinke was not careful with the public’s dollars nor mindful of potential conflicts of interest. Instead, he seemed to take every opportunity to promote oil and gas industry interests, along with his own self-image. He even ordered a special flag raised outside the Interior Department headquarters any time he was in the building. And he breezily dismissed concerns about a land deal in his hometown of Whitefish involving a high-level chairman at Halliburton — an energy company with which his agency has close involvement.
At least 18 federal investigations have been launched during Zinke’s time in office. He has been cleared of wrongdoing in four of them, and another five were closed due to a lack of cooperation or records from his office, according to a list kept by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Amid growing speculation that Zinke’s days at Interior were numbered, President Trump announced in a Twitter post last weekend that Zinke would indeed be leaving his post. Zinke’s resignation letter states that his last day will be Jan. 2.
Some may have found it gimmicky when Zinke showed up for his first day of work at the Interior Department riding a horse, but he undeniably represented a certain image of Montana and Montanans. With a few glittering exceptions, that image was tarnished over the course of his time as the head of the Department of the Interior.
Montana’s two senators should carefully consider this legacy as they weigh whether to confirm President Trump’s next Interior secretary nominee.