“I shall faithfully uphold Teddy Roosevelt’s belief that our treasured public lands are ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of the people’ and will work tirelessly to ensure our public lands are managed and preserved in a way that benefits all Americans for generations to come.”
— Ryan Zinke at his swearing-in ceremony as secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, March 1, 2017
Since taking the helm of President Trump’s Interior Department, Ryan Zinke has launched a full-scale attack on Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy by throwing open our public lands and oceans to the fossil fuel industry, stripping endangered wildlife of vital protections, tearing down environmental safeguards, putting polluting interests ahead of our own, and suppressing scientific evidence. Instead of working tirelessly to preserve our natural heritage, as Teddy Roosevelt did, Zinke’s actions are gravely threatening it. In addition, his lavish spending and questionable ethics have eroded Americans’ confidence in the Interior Department.
Plundering Our Natural Heritage
Secretary Zinke is conducting the largest sell-off of public lands and oceans in American history, enriching giant energy and mining companies by inviting them to exploit and destroy some of our last and greatest wild places.
- Zinke has recommended that President Trump shrink several national monuments, a direct attack on the 1906 Antiquities Act—signed by Teddy Roosevelt—that grants presidents the authority to permanently protect sites of irreplaceable historic and cultural value.
- Based on Zinke’s report, Trump has moved to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah, stripping nearly two million acres of their protections and exposing these spectacular places to industrial ruin for the sake of coal, oil, gas, and uranium profits.
- Zinke has also recommended that the president downsize Nevada’s Gold Butte National Monument and Oregon’s Cascade Siskiyou National Monument. Six other monuments—some on land, some in the ocean—would be reduced in size and/or opened to extractive industries, such as logging, mining, drilling, and commercial fishing.
- Zinke has lifted the moratorium imposed by the Obama administration on new coal leasing on federal lands—a practice that has ravaged our natural heritage with massive strip mines, slag heaps, and toxic wastewater pits.
- Trump’s lifting of the coal moratorium has opened the door for the Alton Coal Development Corporation’s plans to expand a coal strip mine just a few miles outside of Bryce Canyon National Park. The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Environmental Impact Statement essentially endorsed the project.
- Zinke issued a draft Five-Year Outer Continental Shelf leasing program that would open virtually all of America’s coastal waters from Maine to California—and even off the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—to oil and gas drilling. That represents a radical change from the Obama administration’s five-year program, which places most federal waters off limits to the industry. Both Republican and Democratic governors have denounced the move.
- Zinke’s Interior Department has proposed significantly weakening the blowout preventer and well control rule that was put in place in direct response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in 2010. And it has weakened the offshore production safety rule by eliminating the requirement for an independent third party to certify that safety and pollution prevention equipment will function as designed under the conditions to which the equipment will be exposed, including the “most extreme” scenarios involving weather, high heat, strong winds, or high pressure.
- The amount of public land offered for oil and gas leasing during Zinke’s first year totaled nearly 12 million acres—a six-fold increase over the last year of the Obama administration.
- Zinke approved a raid by oil and gas companies on the National Petroleum Reserve—Alaska without a proper environmental review, conducting the largest-ever onshore oil and gas lease sale across a vast area the size of New Hampshire and Massachusetts combined. The reserve is a renowned wildlife habitat, home to wolves, brown bears, two caribou herds, and millions of migratory birds.
- Zinke’s department has taken the first steps toward opening the sensitive coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—the crown jewel of America’s wildlife refuge system and premier denning ground for polar bears—by starting the review process for holding an oil and gas lease sale. The administration plans to spend $4 million on construction projects in preparation for drilling.
- Zinke is moving to permit energy companies to harm marine mammals while blasting coastal waters from New Jersey to Florida with high-intensity seismic airguns—the precursor to oil and gas drilling. The blasting would threaten the North Atlantic right whale, an endangered species that experts say is spiraling toward extinction.
- Zinke has approved a plan that would allow seismic blasting for oil and gas exploration in the DeSoto Canyon, off the Alabama and Florida coasts. Government biologists have said such blasting would threaten the Gulf of Mexico whale, of which fewer than 50 individuals are believed to remain.
Stripping Wildlife of Protection
Zinke is taking away federal protections from key wildlife species while paving the way for the increased killing of others—all to promote more drilling, mining, logging, and trophy hunting.
- On his first day on the job, Zinke issued an order overturning the ban on lead ammunition used on public lands. The contaminated ammo, left on the ground and in water, kills millions of birds and other animals every year.
- Under Zinke, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that it will allow the import of hunting trophies—of elephants and other endangered African species—to resume on a case-by-case basis.
- Zinke has convened a taxpayer-funded council that will advise the Trump administration on how to promote the killing of more imperiled species, like elephants and lions, for sport. Appointed members of the so-called International Wildlife Conservation Council include the National Rifle Association’s director of hunting policy, a “celebrity hunter” who coproduced the reality TV show Extreme Huntress, and the co-owner (with Trump’s sons) of a hunting preserve in upstate New York.
- The Interior Department has unveiled a proposal to greatly weaken the Endangered Species Act by scaling back key provisions that help protect animal and plant species from going extinct.
- Zinke has released a plan to roll back protections for the sage grouse, an iconic western bird renowned for its elaborate mating dance, and the 60 million acres of federally protected lands that it depends upon. The reversal will throw open sage grouse habitat to more logging, mining, and drilling.
- Zinke attempted to kick Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population off the endangered species list, opening them to the threat of trophy hunting outside the national park’s boundaries. However, a federal court blocked the move and reinstated the bear’s protections, leading to a cancellation of planned hunts.
- Zinke’s Fish and Wildlife Service has begun the process for stripping the Canada lynx of its protections under the Endangered Species Act, even though a 2016 study concluded that the species would die out in its northern range without federal safeguards. The cats are threatened by logging, mining, snowmobiling, and climate change.
- The Interior Department has moved to shield energy companies from being prosecuted under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for the killing of migratory birds. The law has been instrumental in ensuring that companies take standard precautions to prevent bird deaths, and it was the primary driver in holding BP accountable for killing more than a million birds in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The agency’s legal opinion was written by its principal deputy solicitor, a longtime advisor to energy mogul Charles Koch.
- The Interior Department imposed a freeze on listing the rusty patched bumblebee as endangered, then reversed course after getting sued by NRDC.
- The Interior Department has issued guidelines that prohibit staff from informing developers when they must obtain a permit under the Endangered Species Act.
- An Interior Department proposal would allow the return of cruel and inhumane hunting practices to national preserves in Alaska. The extreme tactics include killing wolf mothers and pups in their dens, baiting bears with sweets, and shooting caribou from boats while they are swimming.
- The Fish and Wildlife Service is studying whether to strip wolves of their endangered species status where they are currently protected in the Lower 48 states.
- The Interior Department put forward a plan that would allow people to kill red wolves that stray onto their property, essentially ending a 30-year effort to reestablish the critical endangered American red wolves in North Carolina. But a recent court ruling blasted the department, saying that “Wildlife are not the property of landowners but belong to the public and are managed by state and federal governments for the public good.”
- The Interior Department rescinded an Obama administration ban on the use of bee-killing neonic pesticides in national wildlife refuges. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Greg Sheehan said the move was needed to increase populations of wildlife like ducks and geese favored and by hunters.
Tearing Down Environmental Safeguards
Zinke is eliminating vital protections that are meant to stop energy and mining companies from running roughshod over our public lands—and our health—without restraints.
- Zinke has directed his agency’s field offices to fast-track oil and gas leasing on federal lands, telling them to “simplify and streamline the leasing process,” which means cutting the time allotted for environmental review and public participation—both of which can be skipped entirely at the discretion of the field office.
- After being lobbied by Zinke on the issue, President Trump issued an executive order that will streamline the mining of so-called “critical minerals,” which will bring with it more toxic mining waste, global warming pollution, and unsustainable water usage.
- Zinke finalized a new rule, replacing the commonsense Waste Prevention Rule proposed by former President Barack Obama, that would have reduced leaking, venting, and flaring of methane from drilling activity on federal and tribal land. Experts estimate these rollbacks will result in emissions of 180,000 tons of methane pollution each year—equivalent to annual heat-trapping pollution from nearly 950,000 cars. NRDC, along with a coalition of other groups, has filed suit to block this rollback.
- Under Zinke, the BLM has proposed repealing safeguards on fracking on federal lands. Under the existing rule, companies are required to disclose the chemicals used; more safely manage fracking fluids that flow to the surface; and improve standards for the construction of wells in order to protect water supplies.
Putting Polluters First, People Last
Zinke is working tirelessly to solicit and advance the interests of the powerful fossil fuel lobby, while staffing the highest levels of the Interior Department with industry allies well known for opposing the protection of our public lands and wildlife.
- In his first two months on the job, Zinke held more meetings with oil and gas executives—including those from ExxonMobil, Chevron, and BP America—than with any other interest group.
- Three weeks after he took office, Zinke addressed the fossil fuel industry’s top lobbying group, the American Petroleum Institute, at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., which has been the focus of conflict-of-interest concerns.
- Zinke is considering a plan that would slash the royalty fees paid by energy companies to drill in federal offshore waters by one-third—potentially robbing taxpayers of billions of dollars in revenue. The recommendation was made by an advisory panel made up entirely of representatives from the energy industry and states with significant drilling or mining operations.
- Under Zinke, the director of the bureau charged with improving the safety of offshore drilling and protecting our marine environment has spent more than 98 hours meeting with oil and gas lobbyists and executives. He has spent less than two hours meeting with environmental advocates.
- When he visited the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments in Utah, Zinke only met with tribal leaders for less than an hour and spent most of four days in the company of fossil fuel executives and politicians who have called on the White House to throw open the monuments to energy exploitation.
- Zinke scrapped an Interior Department rule aimed at ensuring that coal companies don’t shortchange taxpayers on huge volumes of coal mined from public lands. The gift to coal companies will cost taxpayers up to $75 million annually.
- An Interior Department advisory group—charged with recommending how Zinke ought to oversee public lands available for fossil fuels development—has relied on a top energy industry lobbyist to help draft a wish list of regulatory rollbacks.
- A top Interior Department official met at least six times with the nation’s biggest coal companies before the department suddenly called off a study on mountaintop removal coal mining.
- Zinke has created a new “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Panel made up almost entirely of industry players.
- Zinke has chosen Susan Combs, an opponent of the Endangered Species Act and an ally of the oil industry, to oversee federal wildlife policy. Combs has compared endangered species listings to “incoming Scud missiles.”
- Paul Daniel Smith, Zinke’s choice to serve as acting director of the National Park Service, was reprimanded in 2006 for pressuring agency employees to allow the Washington Redskins’ owner to cut down more than 130 native trees on public land to improve the view from his estate.
- Zinke’s deputy secretary, David Bernhardt, is a former oil industry lobbyist and lawyer, and has been embroiled in numerous controversies that now present conflicts of interest. For example, Bernhardt stands to cash in if the Interior Department allows his former client, Cadiz, Inc., to proceed with a massive water project that threatens the Mojave National Preserve.
- Jim Cason, the associate deputy secretary, served in the Reagan administration, where he lowered royalties paid for coal mined on public lands and authorized a rule that made it possible for companies to mine in national parks or on Forest Service land.
- Joseph Balash, the assistant secretary of Lands and Minerals Management, sought to transfer portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the state of Alaska—for oil and gas development—when he was the Alaska Commissioner of Natural Resources.
- Todd Willens, an assistant deputy secretary under Zinke, was responsible for removing the Everglades from the United Nations’ endangered sites list during the Bush administration. In the 1990s, Willens worked for the owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, where he lobbied against animal welfare rules.
- Karen Budd-Falen, an attorney who has spent her decades-long career fighting the Interior Department over land and wildlife protections, was hired by Zinke in October 2018 as deputy solicitor for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, helping to oversee the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. She’s also an outspoken activist and critic of federal land management policy and has spoken in support of Cliven Bundy’s illegal activities, even representing him in a lawsuit against the federal government in the 1980s.
- Robert Gordon, an outspoken critic of the Endangered Species Act, joined the Interior Department for the senior role of deputy assistant secretary for policy, management and budget just as the administration is ramping up efforts to weaken the bedrock conservation law.
Shutting Down Science and Independent Expertise
In his effort to advance the agenda of polluting industries, Zinke is suppressing scientific evidence that would buttress the case for protecting our lands and health, while shutting out independent expertise that could represent the public interest.
- Under Zinke’s leadership, the National Park Service has deleted all mentions of the human role in climate change from a draft federal report on sea level rise and storm surge that is meant to protect park resources.
- A draft of the Interior Department’s new five-year strategic plan doesn’t once mention climate change or climate science. Under the previous plan, assessing the threat of climate change had been an integral part of the department’s mission.
- While defending proposed budget cuts of 80 percent to the Interior Department’s climate programs, Zinke told Congress that there are no reliable scientific models on the effects of climate change or its links to human activity.
- Zinke’s lieutenants have called out agency scientists for reporting that Montana glaciers are “dramatically shrinking” due to global warming. In fact, some of the glaciers have shrunk by up to 85 percent.
- Zinke’s second-in-command, David Bernhardt, has ordered the elimination of four climate change and conservation policies that are “inconsistent” with President Trump’s emphasis on fossil fuel development.
- The Interior Department deleted a line stating that climate change drives sea level rise from a news release about scientific paper on the risk of flooding to coastal communities.
- Zinke issued a stop-work order that halts work on a study aimed at making offshore drilling platforms safer.
- Zinke ordered the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to cease all work on the potential health risks faced by people living near surface coal-mining sites in Appalachia. Previous research found links between mountaintop-removal mining and increased risks for birth defects, cancer, and premature death in nearby communities.
- In January 2018, 10 out of 12 members of the National Park System Advisory Board resigned in frustration after Zinke refused to meet with them or even convene a meeting in 2017.
- The Interior Department blocked at least 14 of its staff archaeologists and other specialists from attending a major scientific conference. Topics to be discussed included enforcement of the Antiquities Act, which prior presidents used to create the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments that Zinke has been attempting to dismantle.
- In October 2018, the Interior Department implemented a new science policy that severely limits the type of scientific data its employees can cite when making critical agency decisions. The policy also elevates political officials in the scientific deliberative process, bestowing appointees the right to make final determinations for what data can and cannot be utilized by the agency.
Undermining Public Confidence and Ethical Standards
While Zinke calls for draconian cuts in his department’s budget and staffing, he continues wasting taxpayer dollars in extravagant ways. Meanwhile, his politically motivated attacks on career employees—and his growing list of alleged ethics violations—are crushing agency morale and damaging the public’s faith in the Interior Department to do its job. The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General is conducting at least five probes that involve Zinke; at least one of those has been reportedly referred to the U.S. Department of Justice to determine whether a criminal investigation is warranted.
- Zinke spent more than $12,000 chartering a private plane owned by oil and gas company executives for a flight from Las Vegas to Montana after giving a motivational speech to a hockey team owned by a Zinke campaign donor. Commercial airlines charge as little as $300 for the same flight. An inspector general report found that Zinke and his aides failed to share important details about the trip with ethics officers, who would have been unlikely to approve it as an official trip.
- Taxpayers spent $14,000 on helicopter flights to get Zinke to and from events near Washington, D.C. On one occasion, Zinke ordered a U.S. Park Police helicopter to fly him and another Interior official to and from Yorktown, Virginia, in order to be back in Washington in time for a horseback ride with Vice President Mike Pence. The trip cost about $6,250, according to official travel documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
- Zinke spent almost $40,000 in wildlife preparedness funds for a helicopter tour of Nevada that did not include any visits to fire zones. After first claiming the tour was “in full compliance of all federal regulations,” the Interior Department then said that the tour was “charged to the account in error.” Zinke championed President Trump’s unsuccessful effort to slash Interior Department funding by $1.6 billion in fiscal year 2018—including a $400 million cut for national parks—and to get rid of 4,000 employees.
- In a speech to the National Petroleum Council, Zinke claimed that nearly a third of his staff was disloyal to President Trump and likened himself to taking over a pirate ship.
- An Inspector General’s report shows that political appointees in the Interior Department reassigned senior staff without justification. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the actions amounted to “a political purge of career professionals” as Zinke moved to “eliminate independent voices and potential threats to his political agenda.”
- The mass reassignment of senior staff was also a potential violation of anti-discrimination laws since it disproportionately affected minorities. Zinke has made repeatedly clear to his staff that “diversity isn’t important,” according to reports from Interior Department employees.
- Zinke has violated the Interior Department’s travel policy by having his wife, Lola, travel with him in government vehicles on numerous occasions, a new report by the Interior Department’s inspector general found. Zinke pressed Interior staffers to look into whether his wife could serve as a “volunteer” at the agency, which could enable her to travel with him at taxpayer expense. In addition, she was campaign chair for a Republican Senate candidate in 2017, which raised concerns from some watchdogs that she might be using her access to high-level events to further her own career.
- It has since come to light that Zinke and his wife took a security detail on their vacation to Greece and Turkey last year. No official business was conducted on the trip. Security for their vacation reportedly cost taxpayers $25,000.
- The Inspector General has also launched an investigation into a Montana real estate deal involving a foundation established by Secretary Zinke and developers including the chairman of Halliburton, a giant oil services company that is regulated by the Interior Department. The probe will focus on whether Zinke violated conflict-of-interest laws. Experts believe this investigation has been referred to the Justice Department, which means the federal government may be considering a criminal investigation of Zinke.
- Zinke traveled to Pennsylvania to announce $56 million in grants at an event with a Republican candidate involved in a very tight race for a special congressional election. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is reviewing a request to investigate whether the trip violated the Hatch Act.
- Only five days after the administration released a controversial plan to allow offshore drilling off many state coastlines, Zinke announced that that Florida would be exempt—a move that may have been intended to benefit Governor Rick Scott’s Senate campaign. It has been reported that the U.S. Office of Special Counsel is investigating whether Zinke’s action violated the Hatch Act.
- The Federal Election Commission is asking a leadership PAC formerly affiliated with Zinke to account for more than $600,000 of previously unreported contributions during the first six months of 2017. For most of that period, SEAL PAC was overseen by Vincent DeVito, who is now a top aide to Zinke at the Interior Department.
- Zinke failed to disclose shares in a firearms company and signed order that could have benefitted the firearms industry.
- Ethics watchdogs are also questioning Zinke’s choice to attend an annual retreat of women gun owners from the National Rifle Association—and then meet with a small group of wealthy donors to President Trump’s campaign—all while traveling on official business.
- Zinke is accused by two indigenous tribes of illegally blocking their plans to expand casino operations in Connecticut after he and other senior officials at the Interior Department held numerous meetings with lobbyists from gambling giant MGM Resorts International. The agency refused to sign off on the tribes’ plans even though federal law requires a decision within 45 days after the proposal is submitted to the state. Emails later revealed that Interior officials overrode recommendations from the agency’s own experts on Indian gaming policy. The inspector general has opened an investigation into the matter.
- The Interior Department planned to spend nearly $139,000 to upgrade Zinke’s office doors. The House Oversight Committee has asked Zinke to explain the expense.