Following the news of President Trump’s unpredictable first weeks in office is draining enough, imagine being part and parcel to the action? While some of Trump’s inner circle seem to derive energy from all the chaos and turmoil, it’s safe to say that most federal employees are sitting tight and probably losing sleep. Trump has proposed major cuts to a number of important domestic programs, and Congress isn’t providing much reassurance in the way of stability. It’s as if every day’s agenda is driven by Trump’s tweets, which are in turn driven by what’s on morning television. No wonder some of us would rather stay in bed.
Newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, would rather hop out of bed and ride a horse to work—which is what he did on his first full day in office on March 2. Zinke, who was confirmed by one of the most generous margins of the Trump administration, 68 to 31, was a U.S. Representative from Montana before being nominated to his new post. He now leads a department that manages a fifth of the land in the United States, about 500 million surface acres, plus a lot more underground in the form of natural resources.
While Zinke is not an outright climate change denier in the vein of some of his Cabinet counterparts, and has expressed his opposition to selling off federal lands—two highly controversial standpoints that have entered the GOP mainstream—Liberals are worried that he will prioritize public land use and development over environmental conservation and biological diversity.
On Wednesday afternoon, Zinke along with Alaska's two U.S. senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, are scheduled to meet with Trump. Their agenda remains unclear, but according to environmental NGO EarthJustice, repeal of the Obama-era moratorium of coal leasing on public lands could be a big discussion point.
In a statement, Nicole Daigle, Murkowski's spokeswoman, said the senator "plans to discuss the wide array of federal regulations and restrictions — particularly those imposed over the past eight years by the last administration — that are harming Alaska's economy by preventing the state from responsibly accessing its lands and resources."
Environmental groups are especially wary of Zinke’s intentions, and have vowed to keep a close eye on him. After his confirmation, 350.org Executive Director May Boeve said in a statement that:
Once again, the Trump administration is stacking their cards in favor of the fossil fuel industry. Zinke is another climate science-denier with ties to Big Oil who won’t lift a finger for real climate action. His agenda will put communities in danger and, if the coal moratorium is lifted, would spell disaster for the climate. People across the country have been resisting the fossil fuel industry’s grasp on public lands for years, and we’ll continue fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
Greenpeace USA Climate & Energy Campaigner Diana Best said that unlike Trump, "Zinke can string a coherent sentence together, but don’t be fooled. As Interior Secretary, Zinke will sell out the American people for corporate interests in no time, giving away more public lands to private development, undermining efforts to modernize the federal leasing program, and compromising the Interior’s charter to manage lands to serve the interests of all Americans."
If Zinke is ruffled by the opposition, he hasn’t shown it. Since being confirmed, he’s made quick moves to give more agency to hunters and fishers on public lands. His first directive in office was to repeal an Obama administration directive that barred the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle in national parks and wildlife refuges. He also signed an order directing bureaus and agencies that manage federal land to look for ways to expand hunting, fishing, and recreation.
Over the past eight years “hunting, and recreation enthusiasts have seen trails closed and dramatic decreases in access to public lands across the board,” said Zinke in a statement. “It worries me to think about hunting and fishing becoming activities for the land-owning elite.”
That sounds like some Trumped-up populist rhetoric.
In a move likely to only increase environmental groups’ reservations about Zinke, on March 6 he announced that the DOI will offer 73 million acres offshore Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida for oil and gas exploration and development, saying that “opening more federal lands and waters to oil and gas drilling is a pillar of President Trump’s plan to make the United States energy independent.”
Seemingly satisfied with these directives for the time being, on March 7, Zinke tweeted out a stream of photos of him settling into his new office. While everyone else was pulling their hair out over Trumpcare and Obama wiretapping accusations, Zinke was setting out his knife collection. Who’s jealous?