Zinke leaves unfinished business at the Interior Department

On the second day of 2019, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tweeted out his resignation letter to President Donald Trump. After less than two years in office, he claimed to have “restored public lands ‘for the benefit & enjoyment of the people,’ improved public access & shall never be held hostage again for our energy needs.”

That appears to be Zinke’s view of the legacy his abbreviated tenure will leave on the Interior Department’s more than 500 million acres of land and roughly 70,000 employees. Critics might interpret his garbled syntax as a confession: that he turned over public land to industry — pushing oil and gas leases in sensitive habitat, rescinding environmental protections and shrinking national monuments. But what, really, did Zinke accomplish? This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission.

Ryan Zinke to step down as Interior secretary

Ryan Zinke will step down from his post as Interior secretary, President Donald Trump announced Saturday. “Secretary of the Interior @RyanZinke will be leaving the Administration at the end of the year after having served for a period of almost two years,” Trump wrote in a tweet. In a second tweet, Trump said he plans to announce a replacement in the coming days. In a resignation letter obtained by the Associated Press, Zinke attributed his departure to “vicious and politically motivated attacks.”

Zinke, a former Montana congressman and Navy SEAL, oversaw much of the Trump administration’s energy dominance agenda, including the ramp up of public lands oil and gas leasing and the rollback of environmental protections. The Interior Department includes the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, which together manage 330 million acres of public lands, mostly in the West. Under Zinke, the Interior Department opened up large swaths of the West to oil and gas drilling, rolled back a suite of climate change policies, and abandoned a number of collaborative land management agreements spearheaded by the department under former President Barack Obama. Zinke announced his intention to rewrite one such plan, on sage grouse protections, early in his tenure.

New Mexico bears the brunt of D.C.’s environment decisions

Given the fire hose of news from Washington, D.C. every day, New Mexicans can be forgiven if they miss stories about environmental overhauls from the White House and funding mishaps in Congress. But ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to climate-changing methane emissions, less money for public lands and parks or the intergenerational impacts of mercury exposure. At NM Political Report, we’re continuing to track the federal changes that affect New Mexicans. Here are a few of the most important issues that popped up recently. Udall: Climate change ‘moral test of our age’
At the end of last month, Congress let the Land and Water Conservation Fund lapse.

The country’s busiest oil and gas office has a plan for more drilling

If there is one swath of land that holds the most promise for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s vision for energy dominance, it might be southeast New Mexico. The 6-million acre region includes part of the Permian Basin, which stretches into west Texas and is expected to produce more than any other nation except Saudi Arabia by 2023. In August, the Bureau of Land Management released a 1,500-page draft of a new management plan for the New Mexico side of the basin that will determine how its resources will be used for the next 20 years and beyond. The BLM’s Carlsbad field office, which oversees this three-county region, is the busiest in the nation for oil and gas drilling. It’s also a landscape of deserts, grasslands, small mountain ranges and spectacular underground caves.

Top Interior officials ordered parks to end science policy, emails show

As deputy director of the National Park Service, Michael Reynolds played a key role in developing a sweeping new vision for managing national parks. The new policy, enacted in the final weeks of the Obama administration, elevated the role that science played in decision-making and emphasized that parks should take precautionary steps to protect natural and historic treasures. But eight months later, as the first acting director of the Park Service under President Donald Trump, Reynolds rescinded this policy, known as Director’s Order 100. Newly released documents suggest that top Interior Department officials intervened, ordering Reynolds to rescind it. A memo addressed to Reynolds states: “Pursuant to direction from (Interior) Secretary (Ryan) Zinke, I hereby instruct you to rescind Director’s Order #100.”

Reynolds, now the superintendent of Yosemite National Park, did not respond to requests for an interview.

New EPA head has long history of ties to mining interests

Andrew Wheeler, a former coal and uranium mining lobbyist, has been named the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, after the abrupt resignation of Scott Pruitt. Pruitt announced his decision on Thursday, amid a series of ethics investigations into his improper use of taxpayer money and penchant for using employees to conduct personal errands. Wheeler has made a career out of representing fossil fuel interests and rolling back environmental regulations. His relationships with senior officials from the Department of Interior and the Department of Energy, his lobbying background and deep ties to polluting industries have some people worried that his influence could extend beyond the parameters of the EPA. This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission.

Zinke grilled about edited science report

This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast. House Democrats grilled Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke this week about National Park Service officials deleting all references to the human cause of climate change in drafts of a long-awaited report. Zinke told a House Appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday that he and other political appointees at the Interior Department, which oversees the Park Service, have not seen the draft. And he repeated a vow that he will not censor scientific reports.

What will Zinke do with the extra $2.5 billion in his budget?

Since his confirmation in March 2017, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s push to trim the department he oversees while opening more public lands to energy development has been lauded by Republicans and denounced by Democrats. When it came to the budget, however, both sides agreed on one thing: No big cuts. In the omnibus federal budget, which recently passed with solid bipartisan support, Congress decided the Department of Interior was worth nearly $2.5 billion more than the administration had proposed. The Trump administration had proposed substantial budget cuts at a time of record visitations to public lands, billions of dollars of maintenance backlogs and some of the lowest staffing levels in decades at agencies like the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. But in the appropriations bill signed March 23, the Fish and Wildlife Service and BLM each received more than a quarter billion dollars more than requested, and the National Park Service got almost $650 million more than the secretary asked for.

A new structure for the Interior Department takes shape

Update: In an interview with the Associated Press on Feb. 23, Zinke said he is reconsidering aspects of his planned overhaul of the Interior Department. According to the report, Interior will be moving forward with a reorganization that adheres more closely to state boundaries, though some states will continue to be split. “Western Governors are gratified that the Department of Interior has responded to their previously-stated concerns and are moving towards a state boundary-oriented approach in the latest draft map of its unified regional boundaries,” said Jim Ogsbury, Executive Director of the Western Governors’ Association. The Department of Interior employs around 70,000 people and oversees a broad array of federal programs, from land management agencies like the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service to relationships with tribal nations through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

For endangered species, politics replace science

Prairie dogs are complicated creatures. In addition to confounding property owners by burrowing on land slated for shopping malls or horse pastures, they sometimes defy accepted biological principles. Unlike many social animals, instead of dispersing as they age, prairie dogs stick close to home, preferring to live cooperatively with relatives. In fact, prairie dogs are actually more likely to immigrate after their kin disappear. And at least one prairie dog expert thinks the socially complex animals speak a real language.