Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, outdoorsman, and Republican Congressman from Montana, likes to talk about being a “Teddy Roosevelt conservationist.” He has opposed efforts by fellow Republicans to privatize public lands or turn them over to the states—as recently proposed by Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah. Ronald Reagan’s first Interior Secretary, James Watt, also disappointed Western “Sagebrush rebels” of the 1970s and ‘80s who wanted him to turn federal lands over to the states. Instead, Watt promised to use them to “mine more, drill more, cut more timber.”
“To hike, fish, camp, recreate, and enjoy the great outdoors” are reasons Zinke gave for valuing our public lands during his Senate confirmation hearings. But then he went on to speak of opening up additional federal lands to “hunting, fishing, and oil drilling”—an odd sequence of thoughts, as if you might go out for a weekend with the kids to hunt, fish or, if it were too rainy, drill exploratory wells for increased petroleum production.
My Aunt Renate in Fort Collins, Colorado, who began hiking in Germany’s Harz Mountains when she was seven years old and still hikes the Rockies at age ninety-one, told me she was appalled after recently returning to a favorite state park she hadn’t visited in some time, to find the trails desecrated by new drilling rigs.
Given how far away the Republican Party has moved from the environmental legacy of Teddy Roosevelt—or even Richard Nixon, who helped establish the same Environmental Protection Agency President Trump is now working to dismantle—it’s not surprising Zinke’s pledge not to to sell off public lands is cited as an act of courage.
But this would hardly have impressed TR, who struck fierce blows against the “land-grabbers and great special interests” who threatened the parks and monuments he established. “The rights of the public to the [nation’s] natural resources outweigh private rights and must be given its first consideration,” Roosevelt proclaimed.
Zinke, with a 3 percent score from the League of Conservation Voters and a history of climate waffling likely linked to the nearly $350,000 in campaign contributions he’s received since 2013 from the oil, gas, and coal industries, seems closer to the “great special interests” than to Roosevelt, who spent his career battling Western land industries and corporate monopolies.
Teddy Roosevelt was a big game hunter, adventurer, and politician who helped found one of the first conservation organizations in the United States, “the Boone & Crockett Club” (named after Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett), to protect big-game animals and their habitat. He fought to save Yellowstone Park from development and pushed through the 1891 Forest Reserve Act.
Cattlemen, loggers, miners, and land developers, collectively known as “boomers,” responded with timber theft and arson on the reserves. In 1906, when Roosevelt imposed the first fees for cattle and sheep grazing in national forests, he was met with howls of protest from the boomers and the members of Congress they controlled (and often still do). Western papers called TR a dictator who would not leave enough private land “to bury folks on.”
Roosevelt’s response, “Our policies favored the settler as against the large stockholder although in places their ignorance was played upon by demagogues to influence them against policy that was primarily for their own interest.” Any politician making a claim like that today would be accused of being an out-of-touch elitist, probably in a twitter storm ending in “Sad!”
After getting off his horse and addressing his new employees at the Department of Interior last week, Zinke promised to defend his agency’s budget—which President Trump plans to axe. But the real measure of leadership would be Zinke’s willingness to defend not only his people on the front lines, as he’s promised, but also the crucial works they’re involved in.
With climate science, study, and regulation of greenhouse gasses being eliminated and suppressed across a number of agencies, the first major test for Zinke will be if he protects or kills off the National Park Service’s cutting-edge scientific efforts to understand our changing world.
On the 100th anniversary of “America’s Best Idea,” the Park Service has become the world’s largest laboratory for documenting climate change impacts on wildlife and habitat across tens of millions of acres on a continental scale. Ongoing studies are looking at glacial retreat in parks in Alaska and Montana; forest fires and insect infestations in California; Ocean Acidification at national seashores, species range shifts on and offshore; and even the early blooming of the Cherry Blossoms at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., following the three hottest years since accurate weather recording began in 1880.
For outdoor recreationists and conservationists like my Aunt Renate and me, Ryan Zinke is not the worst of the Trump cabinet appointees, but he still has a long distance to traverse to live up to his claim that he is following in the footsteps of his hero Teddy Roosevelt.
Author: David Helvarg