Commentary from the Sierra Club's Executive Director

Trump's Carbon Cowboy

As a casting decision for Donald Trump's reality TV administration, U.S. Representative Ryan K. Zinke looked like an inspired choice.

He's from the West (Whitefish, Montana) and, unlike his boss, he actually visits and enjoys those parts of the outdoors that don't have putting greens. He even donned a cowboy hat and rode a horse borrowed from the National Park Service to his first day on the job in D.C., which I have to admit is kind of genius. Although… did he have to pick a horse whose name (Tonto) is offensive to Native people?

Still, you can see why a little more than two-thirds of the Senate voted to approve his nomination. Zinke looks the part and, with lines like "I shall faithfully uphold Teddy Roosevelt's belief that our treasured public lands are 'for the benefit and enjoyment of the people'," he knows how to act the part, too.

But that's all it is -- an act.

Zinke may have ridden on horseback to his new job, but since he got there he's been more like a bull-rider in a china shop. His tenure has been a disaster for the "treasured public lands" he cites, and his straight-arrow, cowboy image is tarnishing faster than a tin star in a Superfund site.

For the most part, Secretary Zinke excels at staying under the radar, or at least he did until this summer. He most recently made headlines because of suspicion over how a recently formed, two-man company from Zinke's hometown was able to win a $300 million contract to repair Puerto Rico's electrical grid (a contract since terminated after what Zinke calls "the dishonest press" brought it to light). According the Wall Street Journal, though, the FBI is investigating.

For his part, Zinke has stated he had "absolutely nothing" to do with it and that "only in elitist Washington, D.C., would being from a small town be considered a crime." Of course, the word "elitist" is an odd choice for someone whose previous scandal just weeks before included the disclosure that he spent more than $12,000 of taxpayer money to pay oil executives to borrow their plane for a flight from Las Vegas to his home in Montana. Commercial airlines run flights between the same two airports for $300.

Even if Zinke does turn out to be just another sleazy, rule-bending, back-scratching politician, though, that wouldn't be enough to earn him the visit from an angry, chain-rattling Teddy Roosevelt that he deserves. What's most egregious is his betrayal of every principle his supposed role model stood for. "Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us," said Roosevelt in 1910, and he meant it. As president, he helped establish 230 million acres of public lands and parks. When the National Park Service was created in 1916 -- seven years after Roosevelt left office -- it included 35 sites. Roosevelt had created 23 of them.

Secretary Zinke wants to do exactly the opposite. He wants to ensure that our public lands are left worse for our descendants (not to mention us), and he'll do it by shrinking them, by opening them to exploitation, and even by raising prices so that ordinary people (the ones who don't charter private planes on the public dime) can't afford to visit them.

Here's a rundown of just some of the horrible developments coming from Zinke's Department of the Interior:

Zinke delivered an unprecedented recommendation to President Trump that he shrink at least six national monuments designated by previous presidents. Zinke also wants to alter the management guidelines for a total of 10 monuments to include activities such as destructive logging, grazing, and commercial fishing. In making these recommendations, Zinke ignored 2.8 million comments from the public as well as the concerns of Tribal nations with sacred sites on many of these lands.

Zinke rescinded an Obama-era rule that prevented oil, gas, and coal companies from dodging royalty payments when mining on taxpayer-owned public lands as well as Native lands. That alone translates into a tidy $60-75 million handout for corporate polluters, coming from the pockets of you and me.

Zinke ended the moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands, which his predecessor at Interior had initiated so that the department could study the industry's environmental impacts. Almost half of all coal mined in the U.S. comes from federal land, and burning it generates about 10 percent of the nation's carbon emissions. Zinke not only lifted the moratorium; he scrapped the study.

Just last week, Zinke announced the largest oil and gas lease sale ever held in the United States -- 76,967,935 acres in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico off Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Of course, these are the same waters that have yet to fully recover from the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010.

Zinke is setting the stage for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by ordering a new plan for petroleum development there and to begin seismic studies that could harm wildlife in an effort to determine what oil might be extracted from the coastal plain. Actually opening the Refuge up to drillers, though, can only be done by Congress.

Last but not least, last week Secretary Zinke has also proposed increasing visitor fees during peak season for 17 national parks, including Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Joshua Tree.

Wait, did I say "increase"? I meant "more than double." Where currently you could take your family to one of these 17 parks for $30 per vehicle, you'd now have to pay $75. President Obama made it free for all fourth-graders to enter any national park because he wanted young people -- and their families -- to experience the joy and inspiration of these treasured places. Zinke and his boss would like to raise prices, which would make it more difficult for struggling families to take a break on the public lands that we all own together.

What Zinke has done, basically, is turn the Department of the Interior into a clubhouse for fossil fuel lobbyists, from his deputy interior secretary, David Bernhardt (a longtime oil lobbyist), on down. According to a report by the Western Values Project, at least 21 of Zinke's political appointees have backgrounds tied to extractive industries either as lobbyists or former executives. Actually, this is more like a tar pit than a swamp. And why shouldn't Zinke welcome them to his department? He knows them well enough. Zinke received a total of $345,000 between 2013 and 2017 in campaign contributions from oil and gas companies. That investment is certainly paying off now.

To some it may have seemed like Ryan Zinke's wholesome, outdoorsy image made him seem like an odd fit for Team Trump. But to "protect" our public lands by slicing them up and selling them out? To make it cheaper for coal companies to strip mine in watersheds while making it more expensive for families to visit Yosemite or the Grand Canyon? That's a perversion of American values anyone in Trump's cabinet would be proud of. No, Secretary Zinke fits right in.