Montana Congressman and former Navy SEAL Ryan Zinke did not know what job his newly elected commander-in-chief had for him when he first visited Trump Tower in December with his wife, Lola, for an interview.
“It was 200 shotgun questions,” he said, recalling the moment with the president in an interview with Breitbart News. Trump grilled Zinke on a wide variety of topics such as women in combat, Syrian policy, the rise of China, Indian affairs, pipelines, and energy policies. “It spread the spectrum of subjects,” he said.
Trump raised the possibility of his serving as the secretary of Veterans Affairs, but Zinke declined. But as he left the building, he still did not know what Trump wanted him to do.
“Two days later, I was flying back to Montana and Vice President Pence calls and says, ‘Congratulations.’ The first thing I asked him was, ‘What job?’” Zinke chuckled. He was delighted to hear that he had been selected to serve as the secretary of the Interior.
A New Multiple-Use 100-Year Plan
As a former Navy SEAL, Zinke views himself as the commander of an operation where he is ultimately responsible and wants to make sure that the employees on the ground are empowered.
“This is like assuming a giant command, where my focus up front is the field. My focus is the rangers and the land managers that are on the front line,” he said. “There’s a lot of frustration and dissatisfaction on the front line because they feel like they’re being micromanaged by Washington. They’re feeling like they have a lot of resources pulled back. From a military point of view, it’s the sergeant and the chief on the front line that win wars.”
Zinke outlined plans of a reorganization of the department to shift resources out of Washington, DC, to the front lines, looking forward to the next century of land management. He added that Trump asked him to think big.
“We’re going to reorganize the Department of the Interior for the next 100 years,” he said, citing Theodore Roosevelt’s lofty ambitions.
Zinke has a bust of Roosevelt in his office and an assortment of artifacts from the Department of the Interior’s massive collection. Two paintings feature Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden’s geological survey expedition of 1871. He also keeps a dinosaur skull cast of a Lythronax arrestees (king of gore), a famous modern paleontology discovery in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Mounted on the wall is Zinke’s personally owned head of a buffalo from “the last herd” in 1906 and an elk head killed by former Montana Congressman Ron Marlenee, as well as memorabilia from his life as a Navy SEAL and football souvenirs. Zinke played college football for University of Oregon, where he got his degree in geology. In the corner, Zinke has a massive grizzly bear displayed.
Zinke spoke to Breitbart News in his office at the Interior after attending a bill signing in the Oval Office with President Trump, which rolled back the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Planning 2.0 rule. For Zinke, it was one more sign that the president would deliver on his campaign promises.
“We’re going to do exactly what the president has promised the American people he would do,” he said. Zinke is tackling the idea of restoring power to local officials and shifting more power out of Washington. He explained that key component of that mission was restoring trust with the citizens of the United States.
“There is a lot of distrust with some of the heavy-handedness of the government; I would say arrogance,” he said.
Former President Obama designated more than 550 million additional acres of land and water under federal protection and created or expanded 34 national monuments during his administration. Days before he left office, Obama created the Bear Ears monument in Utah, ignoring state and local lawmakers who opposed the decision. He also included millions of marine acres by designating monuments in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and removed offshore resources from development.
Zinke said President Trump would likely focus on managing existing resources before considering his own preservation legacy. In the modern presidency, only Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Richard Nixon chose not to increase the amount of land protected by the federal government. The last president to decrease the amount of acreage was President Dwight Eisenhower.
Trump, Zinke said, was already looking at ways to roll back Obama’s last-minute land grabs.
“I don’t think it’s in dispute whether he can modify a monument,” Zinke said, referring to the president. “The dispute is whether or not he can nullify it — still untested and unclear in the law.”
Zinke also wants to streamline the regulation of federal lands, working to put the Department of the Interior back in partnership with businesses seeking to develop natural resources responsibly. He cited situations where industry “invested in good faith” but had the rules changed at the last minute.
“We’re not going to change the rules midstream to be punitive on your project,” he said.
Making National Parks Great Again
Zinke wants to improve the public image of the Interior by improving the character of the National Parks.
“Our face of the Interior is our parks, and we want to make sure that the park experience this summer is noticeably improved,” he said.
Park superintendents, he explained, would be judged on the cleanliness of the bathrooms in the park, their physical presentation and appearance in uniform, and their friendliness and helpfulness to visitors of the parks.
The parks experienced a record number of visits in 2016, more than 330 million, as the National Park Service celebrated its 100th anniversary.
“It’s all for the benefit and the enjoyment of the people,” Zinke said, citing the engraved slogan in the Roosevelt arch outside the gate of the first national park in Yellowstone.
“We have deviated from that,” he said. “It means that we can protect the environment, but we can’t lose the focus on why the parks were established.”
Many Americans were enraged after they found their parks closed in the wake of the government shutdown of 2015, as the Obama administration physically blockaded the entryways to National Parks and important historical monuments in Washington, DC.
Zinke said he was determined to keep that from happening again.
“Not on my watch,” he said.
During the Obama administration, local conflicts over the use of public lands fueled public frustration in Western states. The Bundy clan took up arms against the government on two different occasions, making headlines as they protested an overbearing government bureaucracy.
But Zinke thinks a different attitude from Washington, DC, might prevent that from happening in the first place.
“I would say the war is over with the new president and the administration,” he said. “We want to be the good neighbors.”
He cited the conclusion of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest in February as an example of how the federal government could work together with local officials to enforce the law and diffuse the situation before it got out of control.
“We want to see when we have a law enforcement problem, our first line of defense is the local sheriff,” he said, suggesting that a BLM truck would not be as effective in thwarting people upset with the government.
According to Zinke, local Interior officials should be embedded in the local communities, serving as advocates for the people, rather than just the enforcers on the ground.
“That’s a cultural shift, which I think is absolutely critical to the success of this organization long term,” he said.
Getting Trump Outdoors
Zinke’s biggest challenge might be getting President Trump out to a national park to experience the outdoors. The president, who prefers to spend his time indoors working or meetings on the golf course, has not spent much time experiencing many of the natural beauties of the country.
“We’re going to get him out,” Zinke laughed, when asked about the challenge.
“Roosevelt was from New York,” he added optimistically. Zinke cited Donald Trump Jr.’s love of the outdoors as a positive sign that the members of the family raised in New York City could appreciate the outdoors.
“He’s in good shape. He’s tough. Hopefully, we’ll get him on a horse,” Zinke, with a grin, said about the president. “Give him a Teddy Roosevelt rough rider hat because it fits his personality.”