Teddy Roosevelt conservationist? Interior nominee Zinke gets mixed score

Interior Secretary nominee Ryan Zinke frequently calls himself a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist. Yet in Congress, his voting record has often followed the anti-conservation standard set by the rest of President Trump's cabinet. With this in mind, we're grading Rep. Zinke's performance, both based on what he said in his Senate confirmation hearing, and on what he does while in office. The Teddy-o-Meter shows when Zinke's words and actions align with the pro-public lands and anti-pollution standards of his hero, and when they fall short.

ZINKE: I will never sell or transfer public lands

Bully! We're very pleased to hear Rep. Zinke re-affirm this position—especially shortly after he cast a troubling vote for a House rule that would make it easier for states to seize tracts of national public land and sell them off. "Our Wild" must remain open and accessible for all Americans, and never subject to this kind of assault on our shared heritage. His statements in the hearing harken back to his pre-nomination record: the first-term congressman has previously opposed some legislative measures that would transfer national public lands to state control, even resigning as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2016 over the GOP's inclusion of a land takeover plank in its official platform.

ZINKE: Climate change is influenced by man, but there's a lot of debate about how much and what we should do about it 

The scientific community is clear that climate change is significantly influenced by human activity, notably the emission of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, and that it is a serious problem. In the past, Rep. Zinke has sowed doubt about the well-established science, and he fought efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well. This stands in stark contarstrast to Teddy Roosevelt's avowal that it is our duty "to forecast as well as we may the needs of the future, and so to handle the great sources of our prosperity as not to destroy in advance all hope of the prosperity of our descendants.” It is good to hear Rep. Zinke now acknowledge mankind's role—and that it's not "a hoax," which he might want to pass along to the president and the rest of the cabinet—but he still needs a refresher. There is no longer any debate about either mankind's role, and Zinke's attempt to equate next-day weather prediction with large-scale climate modeling, among other misdirection, was deeply flawed.

ZINKE: I would support congressional efforts to roll back rules that reduce methane leaks, even though wasting natural gas bothers me  


In late 2016, the Bureau of Land Management—part of the Department of the Interior—finalized a rule to cut natural gas waste and methane pollution from oil and gas operations on public lands. This is a big deal: without this rule taxpayers would lose out on $800 million in royalties over the next decade. That’s money that could go to schools, roads and bridges. Furthermore, more than one-fifth of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions can be traced to fossil fuels extracted from federal lands, and clamping down on them is key to tackling climate change. We're glad to hear that Rep. Zinke is troubled by the problem of natural gas waste, but extremely disappointed to hear him effectively say that he opposes solutions—in fact, that he would reverse solutions already on the books. The natural gas waste rule is a common-sense fix that Teddy would approve of ("I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them"). 

ZINKE: The "war on coal" is real.  Coal is a job creator and a great part of our energy mix.  

President-elect Trump has made many fantastical promises about reviving the coal industry, and Rep. Zinke appears to accept the faulty premise of those commitments: that President Obama and other leaders have been waging a "war on coal," and it is possible to revive the industry by simply ceasing hostilities. Coal is on the decline, but it's not due to a "war on coal" any more than the decline of the VCR was because of a "war on videotapes." Market factors are dampening demand for coal, and states are increasingly turning to cleaner options like renewable energy, which is growing briskly and creating lots of new jobs. That's not to mention the fact that coal-fired power is a huge source of greenhouse gases that drive climate change, a problem that is more acutely understood every day. As Teddy once said, "optimism is a good characteristic, but if carried to an excess, it becomes foolishness." Given all this, we sincerely hope Rep. Zinke is not actually expecting coal to be a "great part" of anything moving forward.

ZINKE: I would support a review of the federal coal program     

One week ago, the Department of the Interior released a report on what the Trump administration needs to do to continue reforms of coal mining on federal lands, including measures to increase royalty rates, ensure a fair return to taxpayers and hold coal companies accountable for environmental impacts. Rep. Zinke appeared to endorse the idea of reforming the program during his hearing—and kudos for that—but his track record is disturbing. Among other things, he previously wrote and introduced a bill to delay the review of the federal coal program before it could even begin, and even sought to stop the Obama administration from closing a loophole coal companies use to skirt royalty payments for leases of public lands. When the markets are looking to other energy opportunities, there is no good reason to continue "business as usual" under rules written more than a generation ago. 

ZINKE: We should defer to states in establishing national monuments through the Antiquities Act 

Rep. Zinke only vaguely commented on the Antiquities Act, but we hope he realizes it is a well-established and popular tool that has been used by almost every president since Teddy himself wrote it to protect cultural and natural sites from wear and tear.  Furthermore, local communities have opportunities to weigh in before and after every monument designation. Some senators in the hearing mentioned the recent Bears Ears and Gold Butte national monuments as designations that were locally troublesome, yet more than 70 percent of voters in both Utah and Nevada supported monument status for these sites. On a national level, 90 percent of voters support presidential proposals to protect lands as monuments, while 69 percent oppose efforts to stop this practice. Any attempt by the Trump administration to portray monuments as radical will rely on a deliberate misreading of American history and public opinion.  


ZINKE: The Land and Water Conservation Fund should be permanently reauthorized and fully funded 

This one gets a resounding "huzzah!" Created in 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) takes royalties from offshore oil and gas leasing and gives those funds to the government to purchase land for parks and open spaces. The program has touched virtually every county in the nation—funding roughly 41,000 projects in all, ranging from the Grand Canyon to historic battlefields to local recreation centers. It is a rare program that enjoys bipartisan support in our nation’s capital and boasts tens of thousands of past successes. In late 2015, Congress struck a deal to reauthorize the program for three years, but we must ensure LWCF is extended past the new expiration date of September 2018 and permanently funded. We expect to work with Rep. Zinke and lawmakers in Washington to accomplish this without harmful changes to this successful program that some will try to pass off as merely "reforms."

ZINKE: I will address national parks' $12.5 billion maintenance backlog


We celebrated the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service’s founding in 2016, and the wild places the agency oversees are more popular than ever. National parks saw record visitation in 2015, drawing over 300 million visitors for the first time. In a recent survey, 77 percent of voters said the U.S. benefits from national parks and the National Park System. But national parks also carry a $12 billion maintenance backlog, with funding for these places and various conservation programs making up barely 1 percent of the federal budget. Public lands always seem to be on the chopping block when Congress works on a budget to fund the government for another fiscal year, despite how critical they are to local to local economy.  Rep. Zinke must advocate for strong annual funding of our parks and public lands if he is confirmed. 

ZINKE: Energy development—among other uses—on public lands is key to the economy 

We need to hear Rep. Zinke further explain his thoughts on his statement that the "preponderance" of public lands should be open to energy—namely by acknowledging that some places are simply too wild to drill or exploit for energy development, period.  As TR put it, “Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.” President Obama listened to local communities, native concerns and sound science when he cancelled the remaining oil and gas leases located in the Badger-Two Medicine area of Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, and canceling many leases in Colorado's Roan Plateau and Thompson Divide, and we cannot allow President Trump's stated aim of “opening federal lands for oil and gas production" to be the goal of the Interior Department for the next four years. We also expect that as he considers where energy should be developed, Rep. Zinke will keep in mind the $646 billion outdoor recreation economy, which is buoyed by American public lands and waters. 

ZINKE: I am a strong supporter of NEPA. We all want the same thing – clean air, clean water and a clear understanding of the consequences.   

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is a critical tool for managing our public lands, getting the public engaged in decision making and ensuring wild places are protected for generations to come.  It’s great to hear that Rep. Zinke holds the NEPA process in such high esteem. However, his deeds don't match his rhetoric. While in Congress, Zinke voted to rush environmental review to allow pipelines through National Parks, and he voted to skip environmental reviews altogether in the name of timber sales, all in contravention of the same law he now claims to respect. If confirmed at Interior, we expect that he will uphold NEPA and other bedrock laws in the face of corporate interests.  

ZINKE: We need to motivate younger Americans to experience the outdoors; we need to teach them the value of our public lands. 

Our children spend less time playing outdoors than ever before. This would have dismayed Teddy, who extolled the virtues of "rough pastimes," railed against "a life of slothful ease" and considered his days spent in the wild to be of critical importance. We must try to reverse this trend by connecting young people to public lands—and we're glad Rep. Zinke seems to agree. We will work to build off the successes of Every Kid in A Park, which offers free park passes to fourth graders and their families, and find new opportunities to inspire youth to enjoy nature. Aside from the physical, mental and emotional benefits, this will help build the next generation of conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts.