Ryan Zinke is Out—Will Public Lands Fare Better Under His Successor?

Embattled Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, the man who oversees federal policy over much of America’s public lands, will be leaving his post at the end of the year. Many environmental groups, conservationists, and public lands enthusiasts received the news with relief. While Zinke is being chased out of his job by recurring scandals over allegedly misspending public money and at least one real estate deal he made that was a clear conflict of interest, his management of public lands made him few friends in the outdoor community. His tenure saw massive reductions of public land protections in the form of giveaways to fossil fuel interests. Zinke repeatedly ignored recommendations from the scientific community regarding climate change and pollution reduction. He helped architect the plan to increase U.S. energy production at all costs, including and especially the environment. Unless you were an employee of the fossil fuel industry, or possibly an oil lobbyist, there was a great deal to be alarmed about by Zinke’s running of the Interior Department.

But just because Zinke is out does not mean those policies are going with him.

Zinke was merely playing his part in the White House’s decision to downsize public lands in favor of ever-increasing energy extraction. He rode into Washington on a horse, Stetson perched atop his head, with a decent record of fighting for public lands while a Montana congressman. Many outdoor media outlets even wrote about how he was the best hope for conservationists during Trump’s presidency. But once settled in his new desk, Zinke turned around and hampered or reversed conservation efforts at most turns. He was doing the job he was hired to do: advance the interests of the fossil fuel industry.

It’s not likely his successor will change any of that.

Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is Zinke’s probably replacement in the interim and many assume he’ll formally take over as head of the department in the coming weeks.

Bernhardt is a former oil and gas industry lobbyist.

“Bernhardt has been running the policy show ever since he’s been there as deputy secretary,” Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a group of independent oil and gas companies told The New York Times about Zinke’s departure.

Joel Clement, former climate change advisor at the Department of the Interior and senior fellow at the Center for Science and Democracy, said of Bernhardt:

“He is a backroom operator and former oil and gas lobbyist who is no stranger to scandal, controversy, and conflicts of interest himself. He’s not a showboat like Zinke and is careful to avoid putting anything in writing, qualities that will make him more effective and less of a lightning rod than his former boss or his new one.”

It seems that Zinke was a familiar Western face for the Department of the Interior, willing to ride around on horseback, pretend to go fishing, and remind people of Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation dreams, while Bernhardt busily enacted the Trump Administration’s plans to strip public lands protection and give it away to oil companies.

Interior Department Deputy Secretary, David Bernhardt.

If you’ve read recently about the Interior Department’s plan to roll back nine million acres of protected sage grouse habitat across several Western states in order to open up areas for oil and gas drilling—that’s Bernhardt’s plan. That move, in fact, represents the single biggest reduction of public lands in the name of fossil fuel extraction thus far under Trump’s presidency.

Bernhardt also spearheaded and signed Order 3360, a rule enacted by the Interior Department to remove the chapter outlining climate change policies from the department’s internal manual, and he directed land managers to stop considering the broader effects of land use policy outside the immediate parcels they managed. Both of these policy changes were made, according to Bernhardt, because they were “potential burdens” to more oil and gas drilling.

Putting Bernhardt in charge of Interior would echo the changes recently made at the EPA. After Scott Pruitt was forced out, again based on scandals, not policy, and after Pruitt worked to dismantle environmental protections to increase energy production, his successor was Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist.

Bernhardt signed a pledge before assuming his role that he’d make no policy decisions that directly benefitted his former clients as a lobbyist, including Cobalt Energy, Halliburton, and the Independent Petroleum Association of America. According to ethics researchers, so far he has held true to his word. But policies friendly to the energy industry as a whole likely benefit these companies just as well indirectly.

It’s certainly possible Trump could pick a different name to head Interior, but, as Zinke and Pruitt showed, the White House is likely to maintain the same fossil fuel industry-friendly course, regardless of who is in the cabinet. There will be plenty more work for conservationists, environmentalists, and public lands advocates to do in coming years to fight for our wilderness areas against the fossil fuel interests that will continue to have a friendly ear in the White House.

Photos: Top, Pedro Lastra. Middle, Bureau of Reclamation.



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