Zinke Circles the Drain, but the Stains of His Reign Remain at Department of the Interior

December 15, 2018 | 1:38 pm
Photo: USDA
Joel Clement
Former Contributor

It is tempting to get excited about the departure of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke; his tenure was marked by scandal after scandal and he demonstrated the will and gall to dutifully gut the agency he was charged with leading in order to advance oil, gas, and mining industry interests on our shared public lands.

As one of the senior executives he targeted for a purge early on in his tenure, I admit that the headlines about his demise have been a lift for me. As a climate policy advisor in particular, I want to see him gone.

There’s this little problem, however.

This isn’t about Ryan Zinke

Sure, he was the figurehead at Interior, the face of the Trump administration, and yes, he truly struggled with ethics issues. His old-boy, I-can-do-no-wrong attitude only carried weight among his old-boy brethren, but it was grating to the rest of us nonetheless.

He was thoughtless and dismissive of both the rules of the road and the career staff that served under him. He oversaw relentless attacks on science, as we documented earlier this month in the report Science under Siege at the Department of the Interior. His unique combination of arrogance and ignorance of the mission of the agency left a bipartisan host of observers rolling their eyes and scanning their calendars, betting on how long he’d last. He was a classic “all hat, no cattle” cowboy with false swagger.

But when it came to policy and practice, Zinke was just reading the script that was handed to him. His ignorance of the mission actually served him well by preventing him from getting crosswise with the fossil-fuel-industry authors of his workday script.

It’s not a complicated script; any actor can memorize the lines. It demands that the Interior Department reverse the policies of the previous administration and hand the keys to our public lands over to fossil fuel interests. It demands that the agency marginalize scientists and experts and demote the role of science and evidence in policy decisions. It demands ignorant, jingoistic replies to questions about the rapid climate change that is affecting every facet of the mission of the Interior Department. It demands the shrinking and hollowing out of the agency workforce and reducing public trust in the agency’s crucial efforts to fairly balance the use of our public lands for the public good.

Under Secretary Zinke, the  Interior Department marginalized scientists and experts and demoted the role of science and evidence in policy decisions. Photo: Department of Interior

The script remains the same

Zinke is headed for the exit, stage right, but the script is not going to change. The man who is most likely to slip into the lead role next is Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a backroom operator and former oil and gas lobbyist who is no stranger to scandal, controversy, and conflicts of interest himself. He’s not a showboat like Zinke, and is careful to avoid putting anything in writing, qualities that will make him more effective and less of a lightning rod than his former boss or his new one.

In other words, Congress and the courts must not let their guard down as Zinke slips away in a cloud of scandal. Absolutely nothing of substance will change once he’s gone.

The good news, of course, is that the new Democratic majority in the House will be bringing oversight to the agency for the first time in this administration, and the courts are already wise to the Trump administration’s clumsy efforts at deregulation.

It’s time for some real leaders

Deregulation is just one element of the script, however. Far more pernicious and long-lasting are the efforts to hollow out the workforce. It will take years to replace the institutional knowledge and capacity that is being liquidated as this administration uses reassignments, buyouts, intimidation, and retaliation to shrink the workforce.

It will take years for the department to get back to effectively enforcing laws and policies that protect wildlife and habitat, that address the well-being of American Indians and Alaska Natives, and that support our legendary national parks. It will take years to re-boot a science enterprise that has been cowed and marginalized by political appointees who don’t know cheatgrass from palm trees. And of course it will take years to re-institutionalize the capacity for the agency to address a rapidly changing climate—in the meantime putting American health and safety at risk.

The Interior Department does very important work that affects us all. Rather than treating the agency as a political football and putting people out of work, it’s past time for some real leaders to inspire the agency to adapt quickly to a changing stage. This can’t be done if the actors keep reading the same script.