President Donald Trump’s heads of the departments of Agriculture and the Interior, Sonny Perdue and Ryan Zinke, introduced themselves to Idaho on Friday with a trip through Boise to tout interagency cooperation and a “shared stewardship” of public lands to balance all stakeholders’ interests.
In two public events, the pair fielded questions on climate change, sage grouse, immigrant labor in agriculture and national monuments such as Idaho’s Craters of the Moon. The first was a question-and-answer session before a crowd of several hundred at Boise State University, and the second took place at the National Interagency Fire Center, where they signed a customary memorandum committing federal agencies to work together on seasonal wildland fire suppression.
But the signing was mostly a vehicle to stress the day’s theme of cooperation, not only between the two agencies, but also with state and local entities.
“It’s not unintentional that we’re here together,” Perdue said at the signing, calling the document a “memorandum of spirits between us.”
“We’re a team and we gotta break the huddle running the same play,” said Perdue, a former Georgia governor, at the Boise State event.
Zinke, Montana’s sole U.S. House representative prior to his appointment, won immediate applause with his opening remarks at BSU, rejecting the transfer of public lands.
He said his three priorities were to re-establish public trust in the mission of his department’s various agencies, such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management; rebuild infrastructure throughout the government’s network of land holdings; and improve department morale, especially on the front line of agency response and support.
“We’re not well liked in a lot of places,” he said. “When you see a BLM truck out there, I want people to think about land management and not law enforcement. I don’t want to see Smokey the Bear armed with a flak jacket.”
Grazing on public lands: Responding to a question about raising grazing fees for ranchers, Zinke said he was looking at rents “across the board,” including for mining and energy licensing.
“We want to make sure that the public is served, and grazing is a part of it,” he said. “It’s pretty tough to be a cattle rancher when you’re also micromanaged by the regulatory environment.”
National monuments: Zinke discussed the fact that he’s been tasked by the president to review all national monuments designated since 1996 that are more than 100,000 acres. There’s 27 of them, including Craters of the Moon.
“My general feeling is that I’m not going to open up any wounds that I have to. A lot of the monuments are settled. People are comfortable with them,” he said. “We don’t have resources on the ground to protect and preserve what we’re tasked to do, and that’s a concern, too.”
Managing forests: Perdue repeated a statement he’s known for: “I think it’s time we started looking at forests as crops, as agriculture, and use them. Healthy forests can produce jobs, they can produce wildlife, they can produce a healthy environment…. Our people know trees. They know how to grow trees. They know how to harvest trees. We just need to unleash them and recoup the great resource we have in our forests.”
Energy: Asked why the Trump administration was so focused on fossil fuels, thereby “ceding world leadership in renewables to other countries,” Zinke said the administration was interested in “all of the above” energy sources.
“I don’t favor one or another,” he said. As for fossil fuels, he said, “I don’t want your son and daughter to ever have to go to war over energy we have here.”
Climate change: With climate change producing longer and more active wildfire seasons, the two were asked about the president’s highly controversial decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord.
“The president’s decision was based on a bad deal,” Zinke said. “Let’s be clear: It wasn’t about climate change, it was about the deal that’s been negotiated. ... The deal should be in our country’s best interest and should address the problem rather than putting us in a long-term permanent disadvantage.”
Perdue said that the accord was “poorly drafted” and that withdrawing from it does nothing to preclude the various agencies from undertaking “best practices for managing our fires and managing our forests.”
The sage grouse: Zinke stressed collaboration between the federal government and the various states affected by efforts to protect the endangered bird. “The commitment is to ... give some latitude in how they build their plans, and then manage by numbers,” he said.
Immigrant labor: Perdue said he was “deeply involved” in efforts to draft new policies that address the agriculture industry’s reliance on year-round immigrant labor, an especially critical issue for Idaho’s dairy industry.
“There are jobs out there that we cannot find American workers to fulfill,” he said.
Gov. Butch Otter, on hand with Zinke and Perdue on Friday, praised their visit. “At no time have both the secretary of the interior and secretary of agriculture been in the state at the same time working together as close as these two gentlemen have.”
Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke, an Oakley rancher, said he liked “their can-do attitude.”
“Now, we’ve heard it before,” Bedke said. “And I hope that their appearing and coming to Idaho together is indicative of a greater dependence on local input.”
Jonathan Oppenheimer, government relations director for the Idaho Conservation League, welcomed Zinke’s remarks on public lands.
“Every moment that we spend fighting the public lands takeover is a moment that we are not working with some of the ranchers and loggers and recreationists and county commissioners to actually find solutions to issues that face our public lands,” he said. “The sooner we can put this iteration of the Sagebrush Rebellion to rest, the more we can start focusing on real issues.”