Montana Voices: Is Zinke the worst member of Trump’s Cabinet?

David Crisp

Henry David Thoreau said, “That government is best which governs not at all.” Our nation’s experiments in minimalist governance show that Thoreau may have been right: We could be better off with no government than with the one we’ve got.

I am referring, of course, to Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the Interior and sometime Montanan who continues to pile up an astonishing record of incompetence and indifference to the basic requirements of his job.

This isn’t about the conservative tilt the Interior Department has taken under his leadership. His actions to scale back national monuments, hike park fees, promote oil and gas development and repress evidence of climate change are welcomed by some of the people some of the time. But no one should welcome his fat-fisted approach to running his department.

Last Best News noted in December that Zinke had reprimanded the superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park for tweeting about climate change. The column also pointed out that an Interior Department official who claimed that he was reassigned to keep him quiet accused Zinke in his resignation letter of waging “an all-out assault on the civil service by muzzling scientists and policy experts like myself.”

Just last week, nine of 12 members of the National Park System Advisory Board resigned to protest Zinke’s refusal to meet with them. In a resignation letter signed by all nine members, board chairman and former Alaska governor Tony Knowles wrote, “I have a profound concern that the mission of stewardship, protection, and advancement of our National Parks has been set aside.”

The board had been in operation since 1935. Its members had included Lady Bird Johnson and western writer Wallace Stegner.

Other groups have had similar problems. Theresa Pierno, chief executive of the National Parks Conservation Association, told the Los Angeles Times that Zinke is the first Interior secretary since the organization was founded in 1919 that hasn’t met with the group.

“We haven’t been able to even have a conversation with them,” Pierno said. “The conservation community in general has not been invited in. Why wouldn’t you want to hear from an organization that has the history, the expertise like the NPCA? We’re nonpartisan. We have Republicans and Democrats on our board. There’s really no rational answer.”

Zinke had taken heat before for some of his odder stunts, such as riding a horse to work and flying a flag whenever he is in the Interior Department’s Washington headquarters. But the temperature is rising.

Just this month, the Billings Gazette criticized him for what appear to be unnecessary flights at taxpayer expense. A piece by conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin ran in the Washington Post under the headline “This secretary is giving Sessions competition for the worst Trump Cabinet member.” Rubin said Zinke threatened Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, last year if she did not vote for the Republican healthcare overhaul. Rubin called his decision “a model of ideological extremism tempered by partisan favoritism.”

The New Yorker magazine took note of the haphazard way Zinke has proposed to reorganize the Interior Department’s 70,000 employees. “The plan would require congressional approval, but it seems to have been put together without consulting lawmakers,” Elizabeth Kolbert wrote.

Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Arizona, said of the reorganization plan, “It is impossible to criticize this on the merits because not only are there no merits, there seems to be no real plan. Neither Zinke nor his assistants have opened the specifics of their proposed reorganization to public or congressional input.”

Charlotte Roe, director of the Wild Horse and Burro Project for In Defense of Animals, said Zinke had an “inhumane, unsustainable” response to a congressional directive last year to establish a humane and sustainable plan for wild horses and burros in the West. Zinke, she said, “proposes to eradicate up to 92,000 wild horses and burros, by selling those in holding to slaughterhouses and destroying those arbitrarily deemed ‘excess’ on the range.”

In another recent opinion piece, Jayson O’Neill of the Montana-based Western Values Project said Zinke denied even receiving more than 200,000 comments on a sage grouse plan. “Ignoring public comments is anti-democratic and demonstrates the contempt that Zinke has for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who support the sage grouse plans,” O’Neill wrote.

Zinke has even annoyed his boss, President Trump, by arbitrarily exempting Florida from a directive to open up coastal areas to offshore drilling. Axios reported, “Trump has made clear to Zinke that he’s angry about this move, according to two sources with direct knowledge. Zinke’s decision is both legally and politically dangerous for the Trump administration. Zinke did not coordinate with anybody, and gave the White House no forewarning of his controversial action.”

Grijalva points to an Army War College report that says military leaders often have trouble adjusting to civilian leadership positions. They expect the world to run like the military, and the world doesn’t work that way.

As Thoreau wrote, “Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.”

Zinke seems to want to run the government on the same principles that are expedient for the commander of a Navy Seal team: authoritarian, undemocratic, unreflective, unquestioning. Maybe he is, then, the perfect member of the Trump Cabinet.

David Crisp is a longtime Billings journalist and college professor who writes a weekly column for Last Best News.