Opinion: Zinke leaves Montana worse off; public lands vulnerable to exploitation

Over the weekend, we learned that Ryan Zinke will be stepping down as secretary of the Interior at the end of the year. Unfortunately, we can’t afford to take much comfort in his departure, because the people and policies he put in place at the department will remain and continue to threaten public lands in Montana after he’s gone.  

Secretary Zinke could hardly have been further from the Teddy Roosevelt conservationist he proclaimed to be. By his actions, Zinke made clear that he was more interested in serving special interests than he was in serving the American public and the lands we own. As he allegedly said in his address to the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association in September, “Our government should work for you.” 

And despite his vows to keep public lands in public hands, he made a series of hires that aided and abetted the movement to transfer ownership of public lands to the states, which would invariably force states into selling off those lands so as not to go broke managing them.

There are certainly many ways in which Secretary Zinke could subvert public ownership of public lands, ways that don’t necessarily need to involve transfer. He could limit, eliminate, or simply ignore public input on land management decisions. Zinke has done all three while Interior secretary. 

Last month, Zinke made good on his words to the oil and gas industry when the Bureau of Land Management, under Zinke, announced it would move ahead on auctioning off oil, gas, and fracking leases on 10,000 acres of public land in southwest Montana, including parcels along two of Montana’s blue ribbon streams – the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers. Unbelievably, the BLM made this decision after receiving thousands of comments against the lease sale and only one comment in support of it.

And just a few weeks ago, the Department of the Interior under Zinke announced it would open 9 million acres of public lands across the West to drilling, mining, and other development. Acting on a bipartisan agreement that involved a wide range of stakeholders and that took years to hammer out, the Obama administration had set aside those nine million acres to protect sage grouse habitat and keep the species off the endangered species list. Zinke ignored that agreement. 

Despite how often Zinke vowed to keep public lands in public hands, he surrounded himself with proponents of lands transfer, hiring more than ten people who used to work for some of the biggest and most powerful lands transfer advocates in the country, including Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the offices of Utah Congressmen Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart.

The most recent hire was a Wyoming lawyer named Karen Budd-Falen, one of the original sagebrush rebels and a legal architect of the lands transfer movement. Short of hiring Cliven Bundy, who happens to be one of Budd-Falen’s former clients, Zinke could hardly have made a more inappropriate choice for the job. She has made a career out of trying to seize public lands and of filing frivolous lawsuits against the very department that she now serves as deputy Interior solicitor for wildlife and parks. 

By hiring Budd-Falen and other proponents of lands transfer, Zinke delivered a troop of foxes into the henhouse, which means that we’ll have to remain as steadfast as ever in making sure that our decision-makers don’t sell out, sell off, or transfer our public lands.

Join us at noon on January 11 in the Capitol Rotunda in Helena at the 2019 Rally for Public Lands to remind our elected officials and other decision-makers that we won’t allow them to sell out our public lands to special interests, as Zinke has done.

This editorial originally appeared on the Montana Wilderness Association’s blog, “Wild Word,” and was republished with permission.