By most accounts, Ryan Zinke, a Montana state representative and later US Congress member, was expected to be a positive force at the Department of Interior. He expressed a love of the land, a belief in energy independence, respect for the institution — he named Teddy Roosevelt as a hero, and in his confirmation hearing he cited the Boy Scouts’ motto to leave a place in better condition than you found it. He also had a record of supporting and investing in public lands to back up his rhetoric.
But from his first day at the helm, it became clear that these were false hopes. He worked to dismantle not only the conservation legacy of both Republican and Democratic presidents but the agency itself. He showed little consideration for the consequences for the places entrusted to his care or for the people inside and outside the department who responsible for the department’s work.
From 2011 to 2016, I was lucky enough to work for Secretaries Ken Salazar and Sally Jewell at Interior. From their leadership, I learned quickly the importance of taking the long view, of making durable decisions that leave our land and wildlife intact for future generations. Equally important, they knew that any good decision considers the knowledge and expertise of people around the country who live and rely on Interior’s resources.
And now that Zinke is out, reportedly due to ethics concerns around his travel and business dealings, I can’t help but look back at his legacy as a leader focused on short-term interests rather than a steward of a legacy that belongs to future generations. I currently work at the National Audubon Society, the largest grassroots conservation organization dedicated to protecting birds and the places they need to survive. I can tell you that Secretary Zinke’s actions to undermine bedrock statutes and drill in important habitats have made that mission more difficult.
The secretary of the interior shoulders an awesome responsibility to steward much of what most defines us as Americans: our iconic landscapes, treasured wildlife, abundant resources, historic landmarks, and sacred obligations to our nation’s first peoples. Much of this work revolves around managing our nation’s public lands, including more than 400 national parks, 560 national wildlife refuges, and the nearly 250 million acres of land divided among multiple uses that include energy development, recreation, and livestock grazing.
In an age when wildlife and habitat are facing significant stress from population growth, development, and climate change, decisions made now can reverberate for decades. In arguing for protecting natural spaces for wildlife and people, Roosevelt famously said, “The time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted.” Despite his self-proclaimed nature as a “Roosevelt Republican,” Zinke’s approach to that question has been to drill, mine, and develop our natural heritage.
From undermining the Antiquities Act in order to shrink our national monuments to greenlighting the oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, his actions — if not his rhetoric — show that Zinke has disregarded the important role public lands play in providing refuge for wildlife, offering natural spaces for people to escape, and documenting the long and rich history of the United States.
Zinke’s actions undermined the mission of the Interior Department
Last December, the agency took direct aim at a bedrock statute, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a 100-year-old law that forged the Audubon Society as a national advocacy organization and saved untold millions of birds’ lives by protecting nearly 1,000 species from poaching, hunting and industrial activity. Issuing a new interpretation, the agency stated that the act’s protections apply only to activities that purposely kill birds, giving industries a free pass for bird deaths, including those from major oil spills.
This radical, irresponsible interpretation removes a key incentive for industries to implement basic best practices, such as eliminating obligations like covering oil waste pits to prevent birds from landing and dying on them or forgiving the $100 million BP owed in fines after the Deepwater Horizon accident to help the government recover pelicans and other Gulf of Mexico wildlife.
Zinke’s move has been disavowed by 17 former Department of the Interior officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations, 500 organizations from all 50 states, and dozens of members of Congress in both the House and the Senate.
Zinke’s legacy leaves years of hard work and compromise at risk
Early in Zinke’s tenure, he moved to dismantle painstakingly negotiated conservation agreements that sought to enable durable energy development, grazing, and conservation on our public lands from California to Alaska to the entire inter-mountain West. Undermining those agreements doesn’t just bring uncertainty to industry or put wildlife at risk. It discourages state employees, ranchers, farmers, conservationists, local representatives, industry executives, and others from ever again doing the hard work of showing up year over year to long meetings to listen, problem-solve, compromise, and agree on a plan.
As Gov. Matt Mead of Wyoming said, “If we go down [this road,] it says when you try to address other endangered species problems in this country, don’t have a collaborative process, don’t work together, because it’s going to be changed. To me, that would be a very unfortunate circumstance.”
For those of us charged with protecting wildlife and nature, it has been a harrowing 21 months. For those of us who know the devoted professionals who make the department work, it’s been heartbreaking. Under the guise of “efficiency,” Zinke took systematic steps to dismantle the agency — stripping it of leadership and creating a culture of fear.
Within a few months, he had taken the unprecedented step of giving as many as 50 of the agency’s senior leaders 15 days notice to accept new roles or resign. He demanded loyalty and undertook a sprawling “reorganization” that would cut 4,000 jobs and uproot untold numbers of staff. His legacy is an agency with a leadership void and a demoralized staff.
There is a saying attributed to Wendell Barry, an American writer, environmental activist, and farmer, from a 1971 edition of Audubon magazine: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” Zinke may be out of a job because of ethical improprieties, but for many of us, the real violation is his failure to strengthen the agency, steward the land, and partner with those who depend on it. The next secretary has a lot of work to do to restore trust, rebuild a team, and ensure we have an American natural legacy to return to the next generation.
Sarah Greenberger is Audubon’s senior VP for conservation policy. She came to Audubon in 2016 from the Department of the Interior, where she spent five years driving strategy and policy for the agency as a counselor and senior adviser to Interior Secretaries Ken Salazar and Sally Jewell.
She has also served as legislative counsel to Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin and as a clerk to Judge David S. Tatel on US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. She obtained her bachelor’s degree from Williams College and her JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.