Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke yesterday huddled with more than two dozen conservation group leaders, including some of his staunchest critics, in his latest bid to generate both ideas and support for his ambitious departmental reorganization plans.
He got an earful, and may have gained some goodwill.
During a get-together at Interior headquarters that lasted nearly two hours, the conservationists and sportsmen started talking reorganization and branched out from there. Coming more than a year into the former Navy SEAL’s occasionally combative tenure, the high-level meeting proved remarkably cordial and substantive, participants say (E&E News PM, March 16).
"The secretary is very much crowd-sourcing ideas for the reorganization," said Interior press secretary Heather Swift. "It was a reorg-focused meeting, from the conservation angle."
Zinke "stayed longer than he was scheduled to," Swift added. "He opened it up by speaking for about 25 minutes, and then answered questions for about an hour and a half."
The participants, who gathered around an extended U-shaped set of tables arrayed in the so-called North Penthouse atop Interior’s seventh floor, welcomed the opportunity.
Steve Moyer, vice president for government affairs at Trout Unlimited, said Zinke used the term "grand pivot" several times to indicate a change of focus away from energy development and toward conservation is planned at Interior over the next few years.
"The fundamental message to us was, ‘We did what we needed to do the first year,’ in terms of things like energy dominance, monument reviews, those kinds of things. And basically, the message was he knows those weren’t very popular with us," Moyer said in an interview.
He added, "I was glad to hear of a change of direction from Mr. Zinke."
Interior officials identified 25 conservation and sportsmen organization leaders as participants, with groups represented ranging from the National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife to Trout Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Also in attendance were Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt; Susan Combs, the acting assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks; and Greg Sheehan, the principal deputy director of the Fish and Wildlife Service (Greenwire, March 30).
Becky Humphries, CEO of the 235,000-member National Wild Turkey Federation, said she was encouraged.
"If he really wants to focus on the reorganization, he needed to pull conservation groups in and tell us why it would be beneficial to us," Humphries said in an interview.
Humphries said she was initially skeptical about the reorganization, fearing it would "burn a lot of energy" without resulting in anything substantial, but her impressions have changed as Zinke explained his hopes of breaking down "barriers" between bureaus.
"He has given this a lot of thought, and there are a lot of good reasons to move forward with it," Humphries said. "I guess I don’t have anywhere near the hesitation I had to [the reorganization] before coming in."
Zinke has proposed dividing the department’s various bureaus into 13 geographic regions across the country based on watershed and other natural resource boundary lines. He has also touted the potential benefits of moving more staffers out into the field (E&E News PM, Jan. 5).
Zinke contends that the departmental reorganization will improve permitting, efficiency, collaboration and access to recreation. The Trump administration has requested $17.5 million in Interior’s fiscal 2019 budget to initiate the effort.
Moyer, with Trout Unlimited, said the group wants to study the reorganization plan and "understand it better" before taking a formal position.
"The issue we all have to face up to is what are the pluses and minuses of this large-scale reorganization," he said. "And today was a good step in helping us understand that."
Another participant, speaking on condition of anonymity, reported that Zinke listed his top reorganization priorities as streamlining National Environmental Policy Act compliance, recreation and permitting.
Mark Tercek, president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy, noted that "we’ve disagreed with several of [Zinke’s] key decisions, such as those about national monuments [and] … changes to implementation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that significantly reduce environmental protections."
Tercek said in an email statement that he spoke at the meeting about the Trump administration’s fiscal 2019 budget proposal to dramatically slash funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Overall, though, Tercek said he "appreciated the opportunity to meet with Secretary Zinke and his staff to discuss our conservation priorities."
In a similar vein, David O’Neill, chief conservation officer of the National Audubon Society, called the roundtable "a great opportunity to join the conversation around conservation priorities."
Humphries said Zinke talked about establishing an advisory panel consisting of many of the same groups at yesterday’s roundtable to help guide him during the reorganization. The idea seemed to strike a chord among participants.
Margaret Everson, Ducks Unlimited’s chief policy officer, said in an email that the group emphasized to Zinke "the benefits of continuing to engage conservation groups throughout the reorganization proposal."
"We applaud the Secretary for facilitating this conversation and support this model for continued dialogue among the conservation community," Everson stated.
National Wildlife Federation President and CEO Collin O’Mara also attended the meeting and expressed optimism about improved relations with the administration.
"We’re committed to working with Secretary Zinke more closely on priorities like increasing America’s wildlife populations, conserving wildlife corridors and expanding outdoor recreation opportunity," O’Mara said.
Zinke said at the meeting the department isn’t considering any more changes to national monument boundaries unless President Trump says otherwise, according to several participants.
Although Trump rolled back more than 2 million acres of monument protections from two sites in Utah in December, he has not acted on Zinke’s proposal to shrink other monuments in Nevada, Oregon and California (E&E News PM, Dec. 5, 2017).
Zinke had also proposed the reintroduction of commercial fishing to three ocean sites — Rose Atoll, Pacific Remote Islands, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts marine national monuments — that the administration has yet to act on.
The Commerce Department has yet to release its own recommendations on those sites (Greenwire, Oct. 25, 2017).
Reporters Adam Aton and Jennifer Yachnin contributed.