President Trump’s appointees for major positions have largely been an amalgamation of wealthy individuals with various allegations against them, but not Secretary Ryan Zinke. President Trump’s Secretary of the Interior has been one of the least contested appointees, and it is easy to see why. Secretary Zinke has had a long career of service, including 23 years as a Navy SEAL, some of which were spent as commander of SEAL Team 6. After serving his country as a SEAL, he served two terms in Montana’s State Legislature, and then one term as Montana’s representative in the U.S. House of Representatives. He differs from the classic Republican platform on a few major issues, including the sale of federal and public lands, and on the science of climate change. He also seems to disagree with the president on some issues, including the proposed budget cuts the Trump team announced recently. In his appointment hearing, he called himself an ‘unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt’ which is very telling about his approach to the management of the Interior Department. Teddy Roosevelt was a believer in multiple-use management of federal lands, meaning he believed that some federal lands should be used for logging or other extractive industries, while some were too special to be touched by industry. This is very similar to the beliefs of Zinke, who is supported by a wide range of groups ranging from the fossil fuel and coal industries to Western hunting and conservation groups. The election of President Trump certainly means a shift in Interior policies from President Obama, and Zinke is poised to be a very influential character in the history of the department.
One of Zinke’s most rigid beliefs is his stance on the sale or transfer of public lands. He is completely and fully opposed to the sale or transfer of public lands, and he said as much during his confirmation hearing a few times. This is great for the preservation of public lands, at least those he will not lease to coal or logging companies. The Republican Party has differed within itself when it comes to the sale of public lands, and earlier this year HR 621 which was introduced by Representative Jason Chaffetz. The bill was poised to sell off ‘excess’ federal lands throughout the West, until it received a great deal of backlash from the public and was pulled shortly thereafter. Zinke believes public lands should be for the enjoyment of the people and has made his position against the sale of public lands one of the major tenets of his policy for the Interior. In a political climate where it seems the president is waging war on environmental protection, it is encouraging to see that large amounts of public land will be kept for the people.
Even more encouraging, Zinke differs from President Trump on the existence of climate change. During his appointment hearing, Zinke was asked if he agrees with his boss in the statement that ‘climate change is a hoax’. He slightly dodged the question in his answer, but his response was heartening nonetheless. Originally trained as a geologist in university, Zinke said he believes that climate change is happening and that humans are having an impact. He did concede however that there is still debate to what degree humans are affecting climate change and what to do about it. The only place this debate about climate change exists is within the walls of Congress, not in the scientific community. Even though it seems as though believing in human-driven climate change should be an extremely low bar to qualify someone to run the Department of the Interior, the fact that Zinke seems dedicated to science-based policy and accepts that humans are contributing to climate change is encouraging when the president does not.
Zinke’s top priorities, as he laid out in his appointment hearing, are telling in trying to figure out what kind of Interior Secretary he will be. He listed his number one priority as restoring the public’s trust in the federal land managers like the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. He believes that especially in the western U.S., those government officers are seen more as hindrances to the enjoyment of public land than they are seen as helpful. In his confirmation hearing, he mentions how Smokey the Bear has gone from a friendly face when he was young to some sort of law enforcement in today’s world. He is a firm believer that America’s public lands should be open to everyone; he wants to increase accessibility to these areas and to ensure that outdoor recreation is encouraged more than discouraged. One of the first things Zinke accomplished while in his new post was to lift the Obama-era regulation on hunting with lead bullets on federal land. Proponents of the ban pointed to the number of animals that develop lead poisoning every year, while Zinke believed the rule was excessive and made hunting unnecessarily expensive (because lead ammunition is the cheapest and most widely available.)
In addition to these stances, it is Zinke’s character more than anything else that shows what kind of secretary he will be. He recently wrote a book called American Commander, which chronicles his life growing up in Montana, his time in the SEALs, and his time in Congress. Throughout the book he reiterates one unifying theme: that the backbone of any successful organisation is its front line. If the frontline soldiers are happy and feel as though they have the power to make decisions in the field, the organisation will be successful. This principle was mentioned again and again during his confirmation hearing as well, which he says will drive every policy he makes. In order for America’s public lands to be protected we need a Secretary of the Interior who will fight for public lands and restore the power of the National Parks Service. If Zinke can stand up to Trump’s budget cuts and fight for his department, he has the potential to be a positive force for the prosperity of America’s public lands.