Ep. 55: Zinke's Out. What's the Damage to Public Lands?

Under Zinke’s watch, the Interior Department  auctioned off millions  acres of public lands for oil and gas exploration and  rolled back   environmental   protections  that affect the more than 500 million acres the agency oversees. Photo: Bureau of Land Management

Under Zinke’s watch, the Interior Department auctioned off millions acres of public lands for oil and gas exploration and rolled back environmental protections that affect the more than 500 million acres the agency oversees. Photo: Bureau of Land Management

The federal government is the nation's largest landowner, managing 500 million acres under the Department of the Interior. And while some expect that America's public lands are managed for the benefit and enjoyment of the people, others say the Trump administration has allowed interests like energy development to lead land policy.

Trump's first interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, literally rode into Washington on a horse a couple of years ago promising to be a land steward in the style of President Theodore Roosevelt. More recently, he signed his resignation letter in a now infamous, barely legible, chunky red pen. On this episode, we take stock of Zinke's legacy and what it means for the country's public lands. Our guest is Collin O'Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). He wrote a recent opinion piece about Zinke in the Washington Post.  

Initially, the NWF endorsed Ryan Zinke, O’Mara says, because he was the only person on the short list who had a bit of a track record as a legislator on conservation issues.

“He had been a supporter of things like the Land and Water Conservation Fund and keeping public lands public and not selling them off to the states,” O’Mara says. “But at the end of the day, he ended up not fulfilling the promises that he made to make sure that the full mission of the department and those other conservation recreation values were given the same footing as the oil and gas priorities that he was charged with.”

During his confirmation hearing, Zinke talked a lot about Theodore Roosevelt's legacy. But if you look at what happened in the first hundred days of his tenure, the driving priority was implementation of an executive order President Trump signed around energy dominance.

“We saw the largest reduction in protected land in American history,” O’Mara says.We also saw a range of rules being withdrawn for things like making sure the gas pipelines aren't leaking or making sure offshore oil drilling is done more effectively, and that when development does occur, it's done in places where you minimize the impact. In each of these cases, they were things that industry had asked for. And it came at the expense of conservation. “

O’Mara says that there is no better example of the energy dominance strategy than Trump’s decision last year to propose opening up nearly the entire country’s coastal waters to drilling.

“There was no nuance and really no forethought was given to the conservation implications of that decision. As a result, governors of both parties — particularly on the Atlantic coast —overwhelmingly oppose the action.”

O’Mara says Trump’s order to shrink two national monuments in Utah by more than a million acres is the perfect example of how Trump’s energy agenda took absolute precedence over any conservation agenda. The Trump administration said repeatedly that the decision wasn’t about energy development.

But if you look at the way the maps were drawn and the paper trail from the documents that were considered as part of the decision making process, it was very clearly was about energy development, “ O’Mara says. “And so why don't you just own it? Don't pretend it's for some ideological concern about the role the federal government compared to the states. This was strictly an industry request.”

O’Mara says we’ve already seen the leasing process begin, and we could see mining or drilling begin in the next year.

LISTEN to the entire conversation with Collin O’Mara:

This episode is hosted by Julie Grant and produced by Andy Kubis. Trump on Earth is a production of The Allegheny Front, a Pittsburgh-based environmental reporting project.

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