The U.S. Department of the Interior touches the lives of every American, in ways large and small, every day.
Its leader is the steward of our public lands and waters, guardian of our natural heritage, and keeper of our national story. The department plays a vital role in furthering our understanding of science and promoting that knowledge to advance the manifest national interest we share in widening our grasp of what’s happening in our natural world. And decisions made and actions taken by this important department exert broad influence, for better or worse, on national efforts to fight the growing dangers of climate change and the rising toll it is taking on the lives of Americans.
To head this agency and its 70,000 devoted public servants is a high honor. It calls for leadership we all can view as honorable.
Unfortunately, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has failed to provide that kind of leadership. He’s failed at, and even worked to thwart, the department’s most fundamental mission—to safeguard public waters and lands. And he’s failed to meet the standards for ethics and common decency expected of any cabinet member charged with representing the best interests of the American people.
Whether he resigns or is fired, Zinke has to go.
The Interior Department oversees roughly one-third of the country’s land area through its management of wilderness tracts, underground mineral resources, and more than 400 national parks, nearly 600 national wildlife refuges, and more than 100 national monuments. The Statue of Liberty. The Grand Canyon. Yellowstone National Park. The Lincoln Memorial. The Canyons of the Ancients. These special places, and many more—places we’ve protected to preserve our natural heritage or to situate the American story on the American landscape—are entrusted to the Interior Department’s care.
The Interior oversees hundreds of millions of acres of wilderness, from the Petrified Forest of Arizona to the great Atchafalaya river basin swamp. And it has authority over oil and gas drilling in federal waters—ocean waters three miles beyond our shores.
Presiding over these lands and waters, their use and all they support, is a solemn obligation. Generations of Americans have protected these lands and waters and were committed to their safekeeping, so that future generations might know the natural splendor of this country much as the first Americans experienced it. That’s been a core national value for Republicans and Democrats alike for more than a century. For any Interior secretary, it’s job one.
Zinke has treated this public trust as though it were a private fiefdom, doling out wild waters and lands for industrial exploitation and private profiteering as a child might throw open a box of toys. A year ago this week, he plotted the single largest raid ever on our public lands, exposing spectacular landscapes and sacred sites to the risk of industrial ruin for the sake of coal, oil, uranium, and gas profits. Anybody doubt it? Take a look at the overlay of mineral-deposit maps atop the protections Zinke stripped away from nearly two million acres of public lands at the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante national monuments in Utah.
Zinke has rolled back essential safeguards put in place to reduce the risk of one of the most hazardous industrial operations on earth: offshore oil and gas drilling. The protections Zinke has eviscerated embodied the lessons we learned, as a nation, from the 2010 BP blowout that killed 11 workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon, dumped millions of barrels of toxic crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and threw tens of thousands out of work for months. Weakening those commonsense safeguards to cut industry costs puts our workers, waters, and wildlife at needless risk. It’s beyond irresponsible. It’s nothing short of madness.
While making offshore drilling more dangerous, Zinke has moved to expose nearly every coastal community in the country to the risks of the next BP-style disaster. He’s done so by proposing that we allow offshore drilling in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico—waters that, for the most part, have been off-limits to drilling for decades.
Just last week, the Trump administration greenlighted seismic blasting off the East Coast, essentially granting the oil and gas industry a license to harm hundreds of thousands of whales and dolphins and other marine life up and down the Eastern Seaboard from Florida to the Chesapeake Bay.
Handing our oceans, marine life, coastal communities, and all they support over to the destruction and danger of the offshore oil and gas industry flies in the face of concerted opposition to offshore drilling by tens of thousands of citizens, business owners, fishermen, governors, mayors and others up and down the entire East Coast. And for what?
The fossil fuel industry itself says what little oil and gas may lie beneath Atlantic waters won’t be available for another 25 or 30 years. By then, we’ll need to have cut fossil fuel consumption, not expanded it, or we’ll cede vast portions of our country and our economy to the ravages of worsening climate change. So says the new National Climate Assessment, the work of top scientists and other experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration, the Pentagon, and 10 other federal agencies—including the Department of the Interior itself.
Zinke has been too busy trying to appeal to the fossil fuel industry to recognize the mounting damage and danger climate change is imposing on our public lands and waters. He’s scolded dedicated Interior Department professionals for pointing out such hazard and harm. And he’s taken steps to make matters worse.
He rolled back an important rule to limit methane emissions—a powerful climate-wrecking greenhouse gas—from oil and gas operations on federal lands. He’s fast-tracking oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, established by President Eisenhower, 48 years ago this week, to preserve wildlife and pristine habitat. And he blames the environmental community for California’s wildfires, which have been made vastly more devastating by hot temperatures, prolonged drought, and beetle infestations, all of which are impacts of climate change.
America’s public waters and lands belong to you and me. Zinke’s record as a steward of that public trust has been, in a word, abysmal.
In addition, he’s brought a level of personal comportment to the job that runs from high-handed to disgraceful: ordering staff to hoist a flag atop Interior Department headquarters whenever Zinke graces the building, becoming the subject of some 17 official inquiries into alleged ethics violations, casually calling for investigations into public interest groups that dare to question his imperious ways, poking a finger in the face of a young woman who deigned to ask why he wasn’t listening to tribal leaders calling for the preservation of needed protections at Bears Ears.
Ryan Zinke is a failed Interior secretary. He’s failing the country. It’s time for him to go.
Reah Suh is the president of the Natural Resource Defense Council. This article was republished in the Missoula Current with the organization’s consent.