Zinke looks West for deputies and priorities, rejected VA job

By Corbin Hiar | 03/28/2017 04:28 PM EDT

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks at the Public Lands Council's Legislative Conference.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks at the Public Lands Council's Legislative Conference. Photo courtesy of @SecretaryZinke via Twitter.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke this afternoon offered new details on how he plans to staff and reorganize the agency, how he’ll change the way it manages species and habitats, and how he got picked for the job.

"The war on the West is over," the former Montana Republican congressman told members of the Public Lands Council. The ranchers, who were in Washington to discuss their advocacy priorities, erupted in applause.

Zinke predicted that they would also be pleased with the nominees the White House is set to announce for the top ranks of the Interior Department.


"The president has approved most, if not all," of his picks for key leadership positions, the secretary said during a Q&A session with the grazing permit holders. "You’ll find the leadership will be very pro-Western, to say the least. As soon as the names are announced, I think you’ll like them."

Western states could see an influx of new agency officials who will be directed to work with ranchers and other public land users, the Navy veteran added.

"As a former SEAL commander, we’re too light on the front line and we’re too heavy in Washington and the regions," he said in a brief opening speech.

"Our people are going to be judged on collaborative efforts," he later added. "Our people are going to be held accountable. I can’t fire anybody, but I can move them."

Zinke also floated the idea of transferring ownership of the National Park Service’s crumbling roads and bridges to the Transportation Department and some Fish and Wildlife Service fisheries to the states in which they are located.

While he reiterated his interest in moving the Forest Service from the Agriculture Department to Interior, Zinke revealed that other options were on the table.

"I may not get the Forest Service, but we’re going to work with the Forest Service and figure out how to not be so stove-piped," the Interior chief said. Zinke indicated that he and Agriculture secretary nominee Sonny Perdue had discussed a "joint command" model like the ones used by the Pentagon to manage personnel across the military services.

Changes for sage grouse, jaguars

Zinke also told the ranchers to get excited about the new approach Interior will take to oversee the recovery of the sage grouse and jaguar.

"You’ll be happy with the changes that are going to come on sage grouse," he said. "We need to manage on numbers, not on habitat. I’m sure if I gave a state — based on science — a number to strive to taking into consideration predator control, West Nile disease, drought and the myriad of things [that affect sage grouse populations] … the state is very capable of coming up with a plan that attains those numbers."

The secretary’s comments suggest he may seek to roll back changes made to Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land-use plans that were intended to protect the imperiled bird (Greenwire, Feb. 23).

The Trump administration is also poised to relax protections for the threatened jaguars, which live in northern Mexico and parts of the southwestern United States.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly "will put forward a waiver on the border, which will allow me much more flexibility," Zinke said.

Such a waiver of the Endangered Species Act would enable the building of the "great, great wall" President Trump has promised in jaguar habitat that is currently protected from "destruction or adverse modification" (Greenwire, Feb. 2).

At the same time, Zinke suggested the wall would not be as big or impassible as the president believes is necessary to stop illegal immigrants.

"The border is complicated, as far as building a physical wall," he said. "The Rio Grande, what side of the river are you going to put the wall? We’re not going to put it on our side and cede the river to Mexico. And we’re probably not going to put it in the middle of the river."

Electronic defenses may be more appropriate in some areas, Zinke said. Others with imposing physical features may not require additional reinforcements.

Zinke offered VA job

Zinke opened his address to the ranchers by recounting how he ended up getting nominated to lead Interior after first being offered another Cabinet position.

"I get a call one day from Don Jr. and he says, ‘The president-elect would like to see you,’" Zinke said, referring to Trump’s oldest son. Zinke brought his wife, who was a member of Trump’s National Hispanic Advisory Council, with him to the Trump Tower job interview.

The wide-ranging discussion lasted around 90 minutes and left Zinke somewhat unclear on where he stood with Trump.

"The subjects ranged from women in combat to a little bit of ag, a lot about military dispositions overseas — Syria policy, China policy," he said. "It was a hundred subjects, and not any subject lasted more than about 30 seconds because he’s a shotgun, inquisitive president. At the end of the conversation, he got up and he says, ‘What about the VA?’ And I said, ‘Sir, you don’t hate me that much.’"

Trump ended up nominating David Shulkin to lead the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, the lone Democrat in his Cabinet.

Zinke said his wife was the first one to figure out he would eventually get the Interior bid.

After the interview, "I walked out in the hallway and I said, ‘Well, Lola, what do you think?’ She says, ‘That meeting went great, but I think he was looking at you for Interior.’ I had no idea," Zinke said. "So the next day, I’m flying back to Montana and I get a call from Vice President [Mike] Pence, and he says, ‘Well, congratulations.’ And I asked him, ‘What job?’"