Letters from the West

Shrinking monuments, shifting staff — Interior’s Zinke is no Teddy Roosevelt

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, center-top, smiling, and Utah representatives surround President Donald Trump Monday at the Utah Capitol as he signs two presidential proclamations to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, center-top, smiling, and Utah representatives surround President Donald Trump Monday at the Utah Capitol as he signs two presidential proclamations to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. AP/The Salt Lake Tribune

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s announcement Tuesday that he still has other national monuments on his radar for reductions clears up one matter.

No matter what the outcome of lawsuits filed by the tribes, environmentalists and outdoors businesses, his claim to follow in the footsteps of Republican President Theodore Roosevelt is dead.

“I call him the anti-Roosevelt,” said John Freemuth, executive director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University.

Interior secretaries always have to balance their agendas with that of their president and the White House staff. Trying to winnow out how much of this monument diminishment agenda is coming from Zinke or the White House is difficult at this early stage.

But the former Montana congressman has now committed to a longer fight over the future of the Antiquities Act no matter what else he does. He has laid a path to say he wants to bring back control to the West even as he stands for holding on to public lands.

Zinke is hanging his hat on a traditional western Republican criticism of national monument designations. It goes back to 1978, when Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus convinced President Jimmy Carter to set 56 million acres of Alaska land aside as national monuments, preventing future development with the stroke of a pen.

Angry Alaskans burned Carter and Andrus in effigy. Meanwhile, the gambit led to the passage of the Alaska Lands Act in 1980, protecting 100 million acres as national parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness. It led President Reagan to keep his hands off the Antiquities Act pen, but every other Republican president since has added national monuments. None shrank them until Monday.

Roosevelt himself proclaimed 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon a national monument over the objections of Arizona leaders in 1908, only two years after he signed the act.

President Trump wanted to fulfill a campaign commitment and try to keep Sen. Orrin Hatch from retiring. But Zinke isn’t stopping there.

He has proposed ensuring grazing continues in Nevada’s Gold Butte National Monument, where Cliven Bundy’s cattle roam while Bundy still refuses to pay grazing fees. Zinke’s recommendations would also promote commercial logging in new Maine and Oregon monuments and commercial fishing in Pacific Ocean monuments.

“They are playing with the assets of future generations for their own short-term political purposes,” said Sally Jewell, Interior secretary under President Obama. “It’s shameful and Zinke, in particular, should know better.”

Democrats also have used monuments for politics. Remember President Clinton’s election-eve protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante? Zinke’s own proposal to protect the Badger-Two Medicine area next to Glacier National Park, in his home state, has wide public support.

Zinke’s other link to Roosevelt is their military careers. Both served in combat: Roosevelt as a Rough Rider, Zinke as a Navy SEAL.

Zinke has talked of moving the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters out West, comparing it to putting military leadership out in the field. In a closed-door meeting in August, he told employees of the U.S. Geological Survey he would move the BLM, the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to Denver. Earlier this month, he told the Salt Lake Tribune he was looking at both Denver and Salt Lake.

Don’t worry, he hasn’t forgotten Boise.

In the same August meeting, Zinke revealed his proposal to set up “regional joint management areas” — field offices combining all Interior agencies, based on watershed and wildlife corridors. They would be located in cities with “no more than two hops from D.C. (by air), affordable and with good community infrastructure,” according to notes taken by a USGS employee and obtained by E&E News.

Boise and Birmingham, Alabama were “two good candidates,” Zinke said, according to the notes.

Heather Swift, Zinke’s press secretary, said he has “no new announcements on the reorganization regarding relocations.”

“As far as inspiration is concerned, the secretary draws his inspiration from his 23 years in the military working with joint commands,” Swift said.

Freemuth, an expert on federal land management agency administration, notes parallels. He said Andrus tried and failed to bring the Forest Service into Interior in the 1970s. Secretary Bruce Babbitt in the ’90s sought to put government biologists under a new agency, the U.S. Biological Survey, but got pushback in Congress.

Zinke has said he hopes to cut 4,000 positions, mostly at the tops of agencies, to meet Trump’s 2018 budget proposal. But Freemuth and other observers are skeptical cutting staff and budget at the same time you reorganize can be done.

Will moving 500 BLM employees from D.C. to the West make that easier?

Freemuth asks: Is Zinke simply listening to the oil and gas industry? What is his goal in reorganization?

“If you want to move power down to the field, move power down to the field,” Freemuth said. “If you are using smoke and mirrors to cover up that the decisions are going to be made in D.C., they are going to be made in D.C.”

Zinke came in with a lot of conservation groups as friends, or at least neutral to him. Now, they are enemies — but you can’t be in politics without enemies.

But Zinke’s future success, at Interior or in politics, will depend on how good a landlord he is for the land and water under his stewardship and how well his agency serves the public.

What would Teddy say? “Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker