Ryan Zinke spent his first year in office selling off our public lands

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wants the world to know when he’s in the building. And so now, at Zinke’s behest, the department’s Washington headquarters flies a secretarial flag when Zinke arrives for the day and lowers it when he leaves. Flag raising, a Navy tradition, isn’t something that’s done for other Cabinet officials, and it isn’t Zinke’s only flamboyance. The former Navy SEAL minted his own challenge coin, rode a horse to his first day of work, and displayed his knife collection in his office before security asked him to remove it.

But these stunts are mere distractions from Zinke’s real influence as interior secretary. Since he was sworn in on March 1, 2017, to lead the $12 billion agency in charge of federal lands and natural resources, he’s made unprecedented changes that could leave a lasting mark on America’s wilderness and its environment. From his recent proposal to open almost all of America’s coast to offshore drilling to rolling back federal protections on national monuments, Zinke has taken extraordinary steps to put public lands in private hands in service of fossil fuel companies and other industries. “When Zinke was nominated, he told the American people that he was a conservationist in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, and he was committed to stewarding our public lands, and he was concerned about issues like global warming,” says Jay Turner, an environmental historian at Wellesley College. “In practice, Zinke has aggressively worked to open up our public lands and natural resources to development by private interests and aggressively rolled back regulations meant to protect those resources and address issues like climate change.”

Meanwhile, Zinke has caught the attention of government watchdog groups that are already calling for ethics investigations into his activities. Documents show that he used noncommercial planes to travel back to his hometown in Whitefish, Montana, and to fly between Caribbean islands. He’s also taken expensive helicopter flights around DC and to political events. A taste for private flights forced Trump’s top health official, former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, to resign last September. Controversy swirled again when, in an effort to rebuild Puerto Rico’s battered grid after Hurricane Maria, the island’s governor inked a deal with a little-known contractor from Zinke’s hometown funded by a donor to President Trump instead of invoking mutual aid agreements with other utilities right away.

Allegations of political favoritism and loyalty to industry are recurring themes in five of Zinke’s biggest decisions to date, which affect the lives of millions of Americans. In January, Zinke announced a proposal to allow offshore oil and gas drilling around most of the United States, including in water off the coasts of California and Maine and the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The five-year proposal, from 2019 to 2024, would open up about 90 percent of the region known as the Outer Continental Shelf — the biggest offshore lease sale ever. This is great if you’re in the oil industry. If the draft proposal goes through, energy companies will be able to bid on 47 lease auctions in 25 “planning areas” along the edges of the lower 48 states and Alaska.

But not everyone is thrilled by the decision. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, for example, immediately asked to meet with Zinke. Shortly after Scott objected, Zinke removed Florida from the draft proposal because Florida is “unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.” (Many interpreted it as a brazen political favor to Scott.) Now 12 other states want out. This new offshore drilling announcement comes shortly after the new Republican tax law became a Trojan horse for new drilling in the Arctic. Opening up the coastal area of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil development was the key to securing a “yes” vote from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) on the GOP tax package.

The federal government is now required to complete at least two oil and gas lease sales in ANWR over the next decade. In December, Trump moved ahead with recommendations from Zinke and announced that his administration will roll back federal protections on 2 million acres of land in two national monuments in Utah, the Bears Ears monument and the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument. The move, Trump said, is to “to reverse federal overreach and restore the rights of this land to your citizens.” But he also hinted at a financial upside for certain parties, claiming that federal oversight has led to “unnecessary restrictions on hunting, ranching, and responsible economic development.” The New York Times recently obtained emails from the Department of Interior that show the Trump administration had an interest in oil and gas opportunities in the area before the sites were publicly reviewed last spring. One email details a map that would “resolve all known mineral conflicts” on protected land that Utah public s...

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