When President Trump chose Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke to lead the Interior Department, many lawmakers, environmentalists and sportsmen felt hope.
Zinke, a 23-year Navy SEAL veteran, had long billed himself as a "Teddy Roosevelt" Republican. An ardent supporter of keeping public lands public, he even resigned as a delegate from the 2016 Republican National Convention over the party’s inclusion of selling public lands in its platform.
More than 40 hunting and fishing groups signed onto a letter endorsing Zinke for the post. During his January confirmation hearing, Zinke promised to be "a listening advocate rather than a deaf adversary."
But nine months into the job, many of those who initially supported Zinke say they are surprised by his actions in office. They express dismay over Zinke’s review of national monuments, his decision to reopen debate over Obama-era greater sage grouse conservation plans, and the targeting of dozens of policies as "burdensome" to oil and gas development.
"He’s stopped listening to Montanans, and he’s really stopped listening to hunters and anglers, and if you look at who he’s meeting with and the decisions that he’s making, it looks like big industry, and that means oil and gas in particular, have got his ear right now," said Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. Tawney had supported Zinke’s nomination.
Whit Fosburgh, head of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, penned a letter backing Zinke’s confirmation, writing that he would show balance and "approach resource management issues with an eye towards improving the multiple-use productivity of our public lands."
In a recent interview with E&E News, Fosburgh praised the secretary’s actions to bring sportsmen to the table, but said there "has literally not been a single positive conservation vision put forward from that department."
"I think all the rhetoric that has come out of the department to date has been opening up areas to oil and gas development, energy dominance, burdens to oil and gas development, shrinking monuments," Fosburgh said. "It’s all been a very anti-conservation message."
Similarly, some Senate Democrats who voted for Zinke expressed regret.
New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, the top Democrat on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, said he’s "very disappointed" in Zinke’s track record so far. "He represented [himself], both in the committee when he testified and to me personally, as a Teddy Roosevelt Republican," said Udall, one of 16 Democrats who voted to confirm Zinke.
Among other issues, Udall has expressed concern over Zinke’s effort to reorganize the department.
"I thought that the best thing to do in terms of working with him after those representations was to show good faith and vote for him," he said. "But, you know, that’s water under the bridge."
Udall said that from now on, "we’re going to try and hold him accountable."
"I think he is straying a long way from the kinds of things he did as a congressman," the senator said. "The reason I think he was picked [for secretary] is his record here in Montana," but as head of Interior, he "is headed in the other direction," said Udall.
Not everyone agrees.
"What I can tell you is that the issues we have been working with him on, he is dogged, he is focused," said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs two panels key for Interior — the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.
"He is working not only with us, but as I talk to others who have dealings with Interior, they appreciate the level of attentiveness" from the department, she added.
Murkowski, who said she had a "difficult call" with Zinke in July after her "no" vote related to Republicans’ health care bill, shares several priorities with the administration related to Alaska. Those include opening a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling and building an 11-mile road through another wildlife refuge in the state to connect the towns of King Cove and Cold Bay.
Kathleen Sgamma, head of the trade group Western Energy Alliance, said Zinke has "exceeded expectations."
"I was just happy at the beginning of the year that we weren’t going to have the third term of the Obama administration," she said. "We knew that they were going to be supportive of energy development, but I did not know they would move as quickly and as effectively as they did. We’re seeing not just the political will, but we’re seeing execution."
One year after the election, Interior has moved quickly on many fronts, from a push for "energy dominance" to changes in endangered species, national parks and mining policies. What Zinke’s department has accomplished so far reveals a different path than some observers expected — and is only a precursor to where it’s headed.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the new administration was a decision to review dozens of national monuments. While Zinke has said no monuments will be eliminated, he sent a report to Trump recommending that several be shrunk significantly.
Randi Spivak, the Center for Biological Diversity’s public lands program director, said her group finds itself "in high-alert defense mode."
But Republicans who have long sought to reform the Antiquities Act of 1906 and rein in presidential authority cheered Zinke’s recommendations.
"This should be a nonpartisan issue," said House Natural Resources majority spokeswoman Katie Schoettler. "The act has been abused by presidents of both parties, and we are focused on responsible reforms that will restore local input and the original intent of the act."
Schoettler added that Republicans are more hopeful that the reform of the Antiquities Act will proceed since Trump has endorsed reducing the powers Congress granted to the White House more than a century ago.
While Spivak lamented that her organization and others must now focus their efforts on causes such as preserving monuments, she suggested there is an upside to the significant shift in focus over the last year.
"There’s a silver lining, which is this: I think more people today know what a public lands national monument is than they did before the Trump-Zinke attack," Spivak said. "And so by picking that fight, they have unleashed a more aware, more passionate, more outspoken public constituency for these lands than I think they bargained for."
Oil, gas and coal
Zinke made his views on energy clear from the start, but has moved even more quickly than some observers expected.
"I have said this once before, but it is better to produce energy in America under reasonable regulation and get better over time than watch it be produced overseas with no regulation," Zinke said during his confirmation hearing.
Zinke said he supported designating certain lands for "special recognition" and recognized the National Environmental Policy Act as the "backbone of our environmental policies." But, he added, "if we do not have an economy as a country, then the rest of it does not matter."
During a visit to Alaska in May, the secretary announced his plan to update the government’s resource assessment for ANWR, to open new sections of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska to oil and gas leasing and to begin the process of rewriting the Obama administration’s plan for leasing off U.S. coasts.
Next year, Zinke will hold what the department bills as the "largest ever" oil and gas lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico, testing companies’ desire to develop offshore.
Interior is in the midst of a White House-ordered review of every agency action that could potentially hinder energy development on federal lands. The department’s draft 2018-22 strategic plan tilts heavily toward oil, gas and coal priorities, while touting a focus on conservation.
Zinke also lifted the moratorium on federal coal leasing and revoked a regulation on how royalties for coal and other commodities are calculated.
The Forest Service said it plans to revise the uranium mining ban near the Grand Canyon, one of a number of Obama-era mineral withdrawals that industry would like to see rescinded or reduced.
Interior in the courtroom
Interior’s efforts to boost energy development and trim red tape have stirred up a frenzy in federal courthouses across the country.
Environmental groups and other administration critics have lobbed dozens of new lawsuits at the government, with more to come. While many cases are in their early stages, groups have already scored key victories.
A district court in California, for example, smacked down two separate Interior efforts to delay Obama-era regulations under review: new restrictions on methane venting and flaring and a rule that changed how royalties are calculated for federal fossil fuels.
Trump officials have since finalized a wholesale rescission of the royalties measure and have proposed a longer delay of the Bureau of Land Management’s methane rule. Court watchers say challenges to these final rollback measures may face tougher odds than the early legal action.
Courtroom scuffles over BLM’s hydraulic fracturing rule are poised to continue. The Trump administration maintains that Interior has authority over the oil and gas extraction process but does not want to implement the Obama rule. A recent appeals court decision could cause the rule to take effect soon, and opponents are urging federal judges to step in and block it.
Trump officials are also facing legal blowback for efforts to free up certain sections of public land for development. States, environmental groups and tribes are suing over Interior’s decision to lift an Obama-era moratorium on federal coal leasing. They’re also opposing efforts to open wide swaths of Arctic and Atlantic waters to offshore drilling.
Zinke’s efforts to stall the BLM methane rule and lift the coal leasing moratorium have been his most significant climate actions to date. The BLM rule was part of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan, aimed at slashing domestic greenhouse gas emissions. The decision to lift the moratorium scuttled an Obama-era study that would have looked at cumulative climate impacts from federal coal development.
Interior left a big mark on national parks in its first year, even though the president has yet to name a parks director.
In April, Zinke accepted a donation of $78,333 from Trump, with the money earmarked for the National Park Service. It will be used next year to pay for a renovation of the historic Newcomer House at the Antietam National Battlefield.
Critics said the president should have shown equal generosity in his fiscal 2018 budget. Democrats complained that a nearly 13 percent cut would force NPS to eliminate hundreds of employees and do little to address an $11 billion maintenance backlog.
Last month, Zinke said he wanted to raise $70 million a year for those projects by increasing peak-season entry fees at 17 popular parks next year.
With sexual harassment remaining a nagging issue, Zinke released a survey in October that found 39 percent of the NPS workforce had suffered some form of harassment over a 12-month period. Zinke added a team of 14 investigators to handle complaints as part of his "zero-tolerance" policy.
In September, Zinke signed a secretarial order that required all federal agencies under his jurisdiction, including NPS, to develop plans to expand access for hunting and fishing.
And since he took office, NPS has put an end to two key Obama-era policies.
First it rescinded a policy that encouraged national parks to ban the sale of plastic water bottles as a way to reduce trash. And it scrapped Director’s Order 100, a 2016 directive that called for a focus on climate change in managing natural resources in the 417 park sites.
Although Zinke inherited a large backlog of Endangered Species Act decisions, his views were not well-known when he took office.
Zinke had co-sponsored several bills with ESA-related components. He did not author any ESA bills himself, though, and he only mentioned the phrase "endangered species" once during his Senate confirmation hearing.
The administration proposed a roughly 5 percent budget cut in the "ecological services" account that pays for ESA work, similar to cuts proposed to many other Interior programs.
Lingering Interior Department vacancies, moreover, have complicated whatever visions Zinke might have for changing the 1973 law through either legislation or administrative practice. The White House has yet to nominate anyone for the positions of Fish and Wildlife Service director or assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.
Still, driven in part by deadlines established by court settlements during the Obama administration, Zinke’s FWS has continued cranking out cases. In early September, the Guadalupe fescue became the first plant to win ESA protection under the Trump administration. FWS had previously added the rusty patched bumblebee to the endangered list in March, in a move that also began during the Obama administration.
Zinke’s more conservative stamp was displayed in September, when his department ordered that most environmental impact statements dealing with infrastructure be limited to 150 pages. More administrative moves may be afoot; currently, for instance, officials are considering potential changes to ESA mitigation policies.
Interior has also moved to dismantle sweeping Obama-era plans designed to protect the greater sage grouse and its habitat.
Those plans, finalized in September 2015 after years of work, represented arguably the most ambitious conservation effort ever undertaken by Interior. They incorporated sage grouse protection measures covering nearly 70 million acres in 10 Western states, and were strong enough to keep the bird off the endangered species list.
But BLM last month announced it is reopening the plans for public review and intends to make significant changes. One of the reasons, as outlined last month in an Interior report on agency regulations, is that sage grouse regulations may "burden" oil and gas industry efforts to develop domestic energy.
Reporters Brittany Patterson, Pamela King, Kellie Lunney, Jennifer Yachnin, Ellen M. Gilmer, Dylan Brown, Rob Hotakainen, Michael Doyle, Scott Streater and Geof Koss contributed.