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Groups Laud Zinke Departure, Worry about Who’s Next

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visited the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah in May 2017. He later recommended its acreage be reduced by 75 percent. (U.S. Dept. of Interior)
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visited the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah in May 2017. He later recommended its acreage be reduced by 75 percent. (U.S. Dept. of Interior)

December 17, 2018

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Conservation groups welcome the departure of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, saying it could take years to reverse the damage to America's public lands during his time in office.

President Donald Trump announced Saturday that the former Navy SEAL and U.S. representative from Montana will leave his post by the end of the year, amid ethics charges involving business deals, policy decisions and travel arrangements.

Despite high hopes that, as a Westerner, Zinke would be sensitive to public lands protections, Aaron Weiss, media director of the Center for Western Priorities, maintains he'll be remembered as the most harmful interior secretary for public lands in the nation's history.

"Secretary Zinke focused on slashing Bears Ears by three-quarters and Grand Staircase-Escalante by half,” Weiss points out. “And that's going to be the legacy that he leaves behind, is this attempt not to stand up and protect public lands, but to open them up to oil and gas drilling."

White House sources said Zinke was forced out of the job.

Zinke is the fourth Trump cabinet member to resign under a cloud of suspicion. The most serious of more than a dozen accusations involves a land deal with the chairman of oil services megafirm Halliburton in Zinke's hometown of Whitefish, Mont., now under investigation by the Justice Department.

Weiss says it isn't likely Zinke's successor will oppose more oil and gas leases, but he hopes he or she will be a better advocate for national parks and monuments.

"You do need someone who's dedicated to protecting wildlife corridors, to acknowledging there are some places that are too precious to drill,” Weiss stresses, “and that your job as a steward of America's public lands is to ensure the best possible return for taxpayers, rather than leasing all of these acres."

Weiss doesn't think there'll be much improvement in the short-term, as former oil and gas lobbyist David Bernhardt – Interior's deputy secretary – will likely be named interim director.

"For as cartoonishly awful as Ryan Zinke was, David Bernhardt is smarter and much more low profile,” he states. “So, we fully expect him to continue these policies, but without the laughable public face that Secretary Zinke brought with him to the job."

The Denver-based Center for Western Priorities is a nonprofit group that advocates for balanced conservation and energy practices in the West.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - AZ