The emperor of the outdoors rode into town on a horse named Tonto, and soon demanded that his own special flag fly outside his headquarters whenever he was in Washington. He believes fracking is proof that “God loves us” and, despite being from Montana, doesn’t know how to properly set up his fly line when fishing in front of the cameras.
“He had rigged his reel backward,” Elliott D. Woods wrote of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in a wonderful profile in Outside Magazine. “Seems like an inconsequential thing, but in Montana, it’s everything.”
As it turned out, it was quite consequential. When the magazine next tried to dial into an Interior conference call, it was denied access.
You may think that Stormy Daniels is in charge of the natural world under Donald Trump. And yes, the boorish behavior of the president and the porn star makes for better reading than an account of the quack running Interior.
But if someone were trashing your house, you’d want to pay attention. And Trump, using the very strange Zinke, is going after the sacred foundations of America’s much-loved public lands, brick by brick.
Zinke has been called the Gulfstream Cowboy for his love of using charter planes to fly off to the nesting grounds of wealthy donors. But he’s more like a mad king. And this monarch has control over the crown jewels of America’s public land. They are not in safe hands.
Last month, the secretary attacked Patagonia, the outdoor retailer, after it protested the largest rollback of public land protection in our history with a website home page of a black screen and stark message: “The President Stole Your Land.”
It is your land, all 400 million acres of it, though you wouldn’t know by the way the Trump administration has ceded control to the private predators from the oil, gas, coal and uranium industries.
It is also your water, the near entirety of the outer continental shelf that Trump is opening to extractive drilling. Almost a dozen states have protested. The waters off the coast of Mar-a-Lago, in Florida, were given an exemption after Zinke met with the governor who said drilling was bad for tourism. Your public servant at work.
Zinke is upending a century of bipartisan values as part of a Trumpian culture war. When asked why the president shrank national monuments in the Southwest by 2 million acres, Zinke said it was a way to strike back against “an elitist sort of hunter and fisherman.” Huh?
Could this be the same regular guy who took a helicopter to ride horses with Mike Pence? The Cabinet member who wants to charge $70 to get into our most iconic national parks? The man whose nomination was championed by Donald Trump Jr., elephant killer and dictionary definition of elite hunter and fisherman?
Defenders of public land have pushed back. This week, a majority of the nonpartisan National Park Service advisory panel resigned in frustration. The board, federally chartered to help guide the service, said Zinke had refused to convene a single meeting with them last year. Silly bird-lovers. Don’t they know you need to charter a plane for Zinke if you want to get his attention?
A much less-connected group, the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, responded with an essay from a board member who lives in a 500-square-foot abode in the Rocky Mountains. “We hunt, gather, garden, can, smoke, dry, jelly and pickle as much of our own food as we can,” wrote Tom Healy. “According to Mr. Secretary, I am an elitist.”
The writer is from Whitefish, Zinke’s hometown in Montana. Where have you heard that before? Ah, yes, a tiny energy company from Whitefish with two employees — three if you count Zinke’s kid when he was an intern on a side project — finagled a $300 million, no-audit, no-bid contract to help rebuild Puerto Rico’s electric grid. Zinke said he had absolutely, positively nothing to do with it.
Look, it could have been worse: Sarah Palin was an early favorite for interior secretary. Zinke is an ex-Navy SEAL, and looks the part. Enough nutty things come out of his mouth to make him a perfect Trump guy. “The government stops at the mailbox,” he said at a rally last year, “and if you come any further, you’re going to meet my gun.” Note to Mr. Secretary: Don’t shoot the sheriff, or the census taker.
It took a bribery scandal to bring down an Interior secretary in the Teapot Dome affair of the 1920s. Today, the corruption is all upfront. Energy Secretary Rick Perry gives bear hugs to coal barons, while doing all he can to have the government prop up their industry. The Environmental Protection Agency is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the polluters it is supposed to regulate.
Over at Interior, they haven’t yet figured a way to charge Americans for the air we breathe. But the next time Zinke’s flag is up, something may be in the works.
Timothy Egan worked for 18 years as a writer for The New York Times, first as the Pacific Northwest correspondent, then as a national enterprise reporter.