WASHINGTON — He came as a cowboy. On his first day at work, March 2, 2017, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rode a horse to the department headquarters in downtown Washington, arriving like a conquering king, accompanied by U.S. Park Police escorts, also on horseback. A native Montanan and a former congressman from that state, Zinke was attired in a cowboy hat, jeans and a rodeo windbreaker instead of a Brooks Brothers suit. At Interior’s headquarters waited a legion of uniformed staff members, who received their new boss to the sounds of an honor song beaten out on a drum by an Office of Indian Affairs employee who also happened to be a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe.
Zinke’s departure is unlikely to be so ceremonial. On Saturday morning, President Trump announced that Zinke will be leaving the Department of the Interior by the end of the month. Much like Scott Pruitt, who was forced out of the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year, Zinke was undone by hubris, which gave rise to more than a dozen investigations into his behavior in office. And like Pruitt, he leaves behind a department whose upper ranks are stocked with savvier operators who will continue to undo regulations without incurring nearly as much negative attention.
Chris Saeger, a conservationist with the Western Values Project, a watchdog group, called Zinke’s tenure a “disaster for public lands of historic proportions.” Other activists offered similar assessments while wondering what comes next.
Neither the Department of the Interior nor the White House immediately responded to a request for comment. Trump said on Twitter that he would name a replacement in the coming days. Zinke was known to have been looking for work in the private sector for the last several months, relegating more responsibility to Deputy Secretary David L. Bernhardt, a veteran Washington lobbyist with ties to energy concerns and the Republican establishment.
Zinke ran what has sometimes been called “the Department of Everything Else” with swagger, casting himself as an outdoorsman in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt. He commanded that every time he entered Interior’s headquarters in Washington, a special “secretarial flag” be raised above the building, and that it be lowered again when he left. Sally Jewell, who’d headed the department during the Obama administration, expressed the amused astonishment of many: “I had no idea there was a secretarial flag. And if I had known there was a flag, the last thing I would have done was to ever fly it.” The Washington Post report that broke the story of his flag fixation noted that Zinke had also commissioned “challenge coins,” commemorative medallions customarily given by members of the military to visiting dignitaries.
In the cafeteria, the former Navy SEAL installed the arcade game “Big Buck Hunter,” a gesture meant to “highlight #sportsmen contributions 2 conservation,” he explained in a tweet.
Zinke had promised not to sell off public lands, a vow that earned him praise from Donald Trump Jr. and led to his eventual nomination from the president. But even though his rhetoric championed the ordinary American and the unspoiled American landscape, his actions consistently favored corporate concerns.
The Roosevelt comparison quickly proved discordant. Zinke proposed raising entrance fees for 17 of the nation’s most popular national parks. The new cost of entry for a car during peak months would be more than doubled, to $70, and Zinke justified it by explaining, “When you give discounted or free passes to elderly, fourth graders, veterans, disabled, and you do it by the carload, there’s not a whole lot of people who actually pay at our front door.” After an outcry, fees increased by only $5.
And he worked under Trump’s direction to reduce in size two national monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, that were deeply significant to conservationists, Native Americans and geologists. Officials at Interior tried to downplay those concerns while overstating the potential benefits of energy extraction there, but emails accidentally sent to reporters revealed a process based on political, not scientific, considerations.
Zinke directed the Bureau of Land Management to lease millions of acres of public lands, some of it close to national monuments and parks. In September, Interior touted a sale of mineral rights on 142 parcels across Western states for $972 million. But critics charged that the leasing process was rushed, with minimal public input. Fears were raised about environmental and scenic damage, as well as a decline in visitors.
Zinke also moved to amend — and curtail — a sage-grouse protection plan implemented by the Obama administration. Much like the spotted owl, an earlier symbol for conservationists, the grouse occupies terrain unspoiled by development, in this case across the high desert of the West. Conservationists objected loudly.
Zinke understood that career staffers at Interior mistrusted him. He just as thoroughly mistrusted them. “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag,” Zinke complained in a speech to the National Petroleum Council in September 2017. He said he was tired of his agenda being stalled in a “holding pattern” by Interior employees. That agenda, as he explained in the speech, came from the White House and involved effacing regulations that stood in industry’s way. “The president wants it yesterday,” Zinke warned.
The president also wanted Cabinet members who didn’t attract ceaseless negative coverage, especially after Pruitt’s messy ouster and the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. After Pruitt’s departure, environmental activists saw “Stinky Zinke” — as some of them took to calling him — as the most vulnerable of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries. Conservatives rallied to his defense. “They Won’t Sink Zinke,” ran the headline of a column by Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal.
Zinke’s own ethical lapses were the best case against him. Much like Pruitt, and other Cabinet members including Price, he had a fondness for expensive travel billed to the federal government. In March 2017, he used private planes to travel to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he attended a fundraiser. That June, he flew to Las Vegas to give a motivational speech to the city’s professional hockey team, the Golden Knights. The team was owned by William P. Foley II, a major supporter of Zinke’s political career. After the talk, Zinke and his staffers flew from Las Vegas to Montana. They did so on a private jet owned by energy-industry executives. The jet was not provided to Zinke free of charge: He left the federal government with a $12,000 bill.
Zinke liked helicopters too. In summer 2017, he spent $8,000 on a helicopter flight to reach Shepherdstown, W.Va., in time for an emergency management exercise. He could have driven, but then he would have missed the swearing-in of his replacement in the House, Greg Gianforte.
As wildfires across the West burned that summer, Zinke took a helicopter tour of Nevada, at a cost of $40,000, paid for out of funds reserved for fighting wildfires. The trip did not take Zinke to areas that had been damaged by the fires. Confronted with this inconvenient detail by Newsweek, Interior tried to lie about Zinke’s intentions, then all but admitted that he’d wasted valuable emergency funds in search of some amusement.
Zinke, like Pruitt, also had a taste for expensive furnishings, authorizing $139,000 to refurbish three sets of doors in his offices, a plan that was halted by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the chairman of the House Oversight Committee.
In the summer of 2018, Politico reported that Zinke had entered into what looked to be a wildly illegal land deal with the chairman of Halliburton, the energy behemoth. That deal, in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Mont., involved the development of empty land the interior secretary owned and hoped to convert, partly, into a brewery.
As his troubles mounted throughout the fall of 2018, Zinke tried to replace Interior’s long-serving inspector general with a Republican operative who was working at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. After news of the planned move became public, Zinke scuttled his plans. But the aborted effort was taken as a sign he was afraid of what a genuine investigation would find.
An incoming Democratic majority in the House of Representative could have proven disastrous to Zinke; Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., who will head the House Natural Resources Committee come January, recently told Zinke to resign unless he wanted congressional testimony to become his full-time job. Zinke answered by suggesting that Grijalva had a problem with alcohol. It was a bold public counterpunch from the interior secretary, the kind of never-back-down maneuver Trump is fond of. But it was not nearly enough to save his job.
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